New method to get stable perovskite-based material for more efficient solar cells

Perovskites materials are promising candidates for next generation solar cells. However, their use is still limited by their instability within ambient conditions. Instead of absorbing all visible light and appearing black, some of these super materials preferentially form another structure which is yellow. Since only the black form is optically active, the current challenge is achieving stable black perovskites thin films suitable for real world optoelectronic devices. An international team of scientists, led by a group from KU Leuven in Belgium, have shone a light on this problem developing a new method to stabilize the black form introducing strain into the perovskite thin film using the glass substrate on which it sits. Synchrotron-based techniques at the ALBA Synchrotron and the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility were crucial for obtaining these results, published today in Science.

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A step closer to smart catalysts for fuel generation

Researchers at the Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil in collaboration with the ALBA Synchrotron have performed the first detailed measurement of the strong metal-support interaction (SMSI) effect in Cu-Ni nanoparticles supported on cerium oxide.

A better understanding of this effect is essential for developing smart catalysts that are more selective, stable and sustainable. The quest for the best catalysts in industry has been a long one, but a new study by Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil, in collaboration with the ALBA Synchrotron, has come a step closer. For the first time, researchers have found evidence of what could be the origin of the SMSI effect in catalysts supported on cerium oxide.

Catalysts are used to increase the reaction rate of a given chemical reaction, and have applications in a wide variety of fields. In heterogeneous catalysis, the catalyst is usually composed of metal nanoparticles supported on metal oxides. Among them, CeO2-based catalysts have unique structural and atomic properties that make them suitable in the cutting-edge environmental industry of fuel cells and hydrogen. In this field, they are being explored as high-end photocatalytic reactors for the thermal splitting of water and carbon dioxide. However, what has been termed as the SMSI effect can undermine their desired properties.

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Image: (extract, full picture here) Near Ambient Pressure – X-ray Photoemission Spectroscopy allowed the identification of the chemical components of the nanoparticles in situ.

X-rays find key insights in metal-oxide thin film interfaces

Researchers from the Institut de Ciència de Materials de Barcelona (ICMAB-CSIC) and ALBA Synchrotron have led a collaborative research, together with the Institut Català de Nanociència i Nanotecnologia (ICN2), the Dept. of Electronics and Biomedical Engineering (University of Barcelona) and CIC nanoGUNE (Donostia), where they have exploited X-ray absorption spectroscopy at the BOREAS beamline of ALBA for unveiling the optical and spin transport properties of transition metal oxides for photovoltaics and spintronics applications.
There is an urgent need of metallic and transparent electrodes for applications in advanced technologies such as flat panel displays or electrodes for photovoltaics, that may substitute the ubiquitous and exceedingly expensive and scarce Indium-Tin oxide (ITO). The AMO3 perovskites (being A an alkaline earth and M an early 3d transition metal, e.g. SrVO3) are driving attention because their intrinsic metallic character combines with the strong electron correlation within the narrow 3d band, to produce a material having its plasma frequency down to infrared and thus transparent at visible range.

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Image: Illustration of different phenomena occurring at the interface between a ferromagnetic insulator and a heavy metal.

The interaction between two proteins involved in skin mechanical strength

A research team from the Centro de Investigación del Cáncer of the Universidad de Salamanca has obtained a detailed 3D image of the union between two hemidesmosomal proteins.

The structure of this complex has been unveiled using XALOC beamline techniques, at the ALBA Synchrotron. The results, published in “Structure”, provide insights to understand how these epithelial adhesion structures are formed. Researchers from Centro de Investigación del Cáncer – Instituto de Biología Molecular y Celular del Cáncer of Salamanca, from Centro Universitario de la Defensa in Zaragoza, and from the Netherlands Cancer Institute in Amsterdam have described how two essential proteins interact to each other in order to join epidermis and dermis together. This study reveals at atomic scale how the binding between two hemidesmosomal proteins called integrin α6β4 and BP230 takes place.
Epithelial tissues, such as epidermis, settle on fibrous sheets called basement membrane, formed by extracellular matrix proteins. The junction between epithelia and basement membrane happens through hemidesmosomes, multi-protein complexes located at the membrane of epithelial cells. Integrin α6β4 is an essential protein of the hemidesmosomes, which adheres to proteins of the basement membrane. Inside the cell cytoplasm, plectin and BP230 proteins bind to α6β4 and connect it to the intermediate filaments of the cytoskeleton. Genetic or autoimmune alterations that affect the hemidesmosomal proteins reduce skin resistance and cause diseases such as bullous pemphigoid and various types of epidermolysis bullosa.

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Image: Structure of β4(WT)-BP230 complex.

Coherent scattering imaging of skyrmions

Profiting from the coherence of synchrotron light, scientists have performed both reciprocal and real-space observations of magnetic skyrmion lattice deformation in a chiral magnet Co8Zn8Mn4.

The study of these materials is key for developing futures spintronic applications such as racetrack memory and logic devices.
The interplay between exchange interaction, antisymmetric Dzyaloshinskii-Moriya interaction, and magnetocrystalline anisotropy may cause incommensurate spin phases such as helical, conical, and Bloch-type skyrmion lattice states. The typical size of a magnetic skyrmion varies in a range from a few to a few hundred nanometers which makes them promising candidates for future spintronic applications such as skyrmion racetrack memory – with storage density higher than solid-state memory devices- and logic devices.
Coherent soft X-ray scattering and imaging are powerful tools to study the spin ordering in multicomponent magnetic compounds with element selectivity.
In this experiment, a skyrmion-hosting compound Co8Zn8Mn4 was investigated at cryogenic temperatures and applied high magnetic fields by a group of researchers from the Japanese RIKEN Center of Emergent Matter Science, National Institute for Materials Science, the Science and Technology Agency, University of Tokyo, the Institute of Materials Structure Science and Photon Factory, as well as from the ALBA Synchrotron.
 

Image: Coherent soft x-ray speckle patterns measured for Co8Zn8Mn4 sample at L3 absorption edge of Co at different temperatures 150 K, 120 K, 25 K (top panel, left to right) and applied field of 70 mT. White scale bar corresponds to 0.05 nm−1. Bottom panel shows micromagnetic simulations of the corresponding skyrmionic spin textures.

 

A new study explains the inefficacy of some diabetes drugs

Synchrotron light has been used for the first time to simulate damages due to oxidative stress on the aldose reductase protein with the aim of obtaining its activated form.

This form of the protein, related with some several diabetic complications, is insensitive to the drugs being developed, which hinders the treatment. ALBA researchers have shown that chemical changes suffered by the protein under oxidative stress are the cause of drugs inefficacy in the attempt to block aldose reductase. The team of the Synchrotron suggests a new method for drugs design considering the changes in proteins under oxidative stress, like the ones involved in diseases such as cancer, Parkinson or Alzheimer.
The protein aldose reductase has been explored as a drug target since the 1980s for its implication in diabetic complications. Now, the team of the ALBA Synchrotron, in collaboration with the Autonomous University of Barcelona, has shown the reason why some drugs against the effects of diabetes under development do not work in the attempt to block aldose reductase.
This protein has mainly detoxifying functions inside the cell but it can also transform glucose into a molecule called sorbitol. Under hyperglycemic conditions (high level of glucose in blood), this reaction increases much more and sorbitol accumulates, consuming antioxidant defenses. So, if hyperglycemia situation becomes chronic – like in diabetes -, there are unbalanced conditions inside the cell that lead to harmful oxidative stress environment.

Image: Isidro Crespo, Judith Juanhuix and Albert Castellví, at the biolaboratoy of the ALBA Synchrotron.

ALBA collaborates in the discovery of a new muscular disease: myoglobinopathy

An international collaboration led by IDIBELL identifies the first disease caused by a mutation in myoglobin.

At the MIRAS beamline of the ALBA Synchrotron they could demonstrate the presence of oxidized lipids in the damaged muscle cells.
Researchers of the Bellvitge Biomedical Research Institute (IDIBELL) led by Dr. Montse Olivé have described in Nature Communications a new muscular disease caused by a mutation in the myoglobin gene. The study has been possible thanks to a collaboration with a group of geneticists from the University of Western Australia (UWA), led by Prof. Nigel Laing, and researchers from the Karolinska Institute (Stockholm, Sweden).

Myoglobin, the protein that gives muscles their red colour, has as its main function the transportation and intracellular storage of oxygen, acting as an oxygen reservoir when there are low levels (hypoxia) or a total lack thereof (anoxia). It also acts as scavenger of free radicals and other reactive oxygen species, avoiding cell damage due to oxidative stress.

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Image: Left, Typical μFTIR spectra and their second derivative of the muscle tissue where the lipid region has been highlighted in orange and the protein region in blue; the inset shows the lipid/protein ratio (calculated from the Infrared spectra) on an optical image of a tissue section with sarcoplasmic bodies. The color bar represents intensity of the ratio: blue and red mean low and high lipid content, respectively. The scale bar is 4 microns. Right,  Infrared second derivative spectrum of the amide region of one sarcoplasmic body (green) showing an increase of β-sheet structures indicating protein aggregation. Second derivative of the amide region corresponding to the tissue surrounding the sarcoplasmic bodies (black).

Urea susbstitutes noble metal catalysts

… for the photodegradation of organic polluants.

A new laser-based technique developed by the Institute of Materials Science (ICMAB-CSIC) uses urea, a common substance in the chemical industry and a low-cost alternative to noble metal co-catalyst, to enable a more efficient, one-step production of hybrid graphene-based organic-inorganic composite layers for environmental remediation, photodegradation of antibiotic contaminants from wastewater. The composition and chemical bonds of the urea-enriched thin layers were studied in detail using synchrotron light at the ALBA Synchrotron.
Human activity is increasing the amount of pollutants in water and air, as well as in all sorts of materials at home and work place. The existence of antibiotic contamination is undeniably one of the most threatening challenges to date, at a time when antibiotic-resistant bacteria has already been flagged as the next world-wide pandemic crisis.
Semiconductor photocatalysts have long been investigated for environmental remediation because they can degrade or mineralize a wide range of organic contaminants as well as pathogens. Research focuses on addressing some drawbacks that prevent their use on a large scale. On the one hand, many photocatalysts are activated only by UV radiation which represents solely a small fraction of the total available solar emission. On the other hand, the recombination of the photogenerated  electron-hole pairs that enable the decomposition of the pollutant is usually faster than the oxidation reactions that cause the degradation of organic molecules. As a consequence, noble metal co-catalysts acting as electron scavengers, such as gold or platinum, are needed in the process.

Image: Researchers Ángel Pérez  del Pino and Enikö György from the ICMAB-CSIC together with Ibraheem Yousef, scientists responsible of MIRAS beamline at ALBA.

Mine tailings dumped into the sea analysed with synchrotron light

The case of Portmán Bay, at the Spanish Mediterranean coast, is one of the most extreme cases in Europe causing great impact on the marine ecosystem by disposal of mine tailings.

For more than 40 years, 60 million tonnes of mine waste were dumped directly into the sea, resulting from the open pit mining that took place in Sierra Minera in Cartagena. As a consequence, the Bay was literally filled with metal-rich artificial soil. Since 2014, a research group from the University of Barcelona (UB) has been studying Portmán Bay. Now, they have analysed samples of these sediments at ALBA because with synchrotron light they can obtain unprecedented information about the heavy metals contamination, such as arsenic.

Very few people know about Portmán Bay, where took place one of the most extreme cases of coastal ecological impact by mine activity in Europe. Figures speak for itself: the mining company Peñarroya dumped more than 60 million tonnes of mine waste into the sea through a 2km-long pipeline located at the west part of the bay. Over the years, the bay became totally filled with a mountain of artificial sediment. The shoreline moved 600m seaward and the trace of the pollution reached 12km out to sea.

>Read more on the ALBA website

Image: Miquel Canals putting sample supports, which were specifically designed and printed with 3D technology at ALBA, at the CLAESS beamline to be analysed with synchrotron light; with Carlo Marini, beamline scientist and Andrea Baza, PhD student from UB.

The ALBA synchrotron and Portugal boost their scientific collaboration

Science ministers from Portugal and Spain have visited ALBA, motivated by a collaboration agreement that promotes the Portuguese scientific community using the ALBA Synchrotron and also includes a training program for Portuguese postdoctoral researchers at ALBA.

On 11th February 2019, at the ALBA Synchrotron facility, an agreement has been signed to promote scientific collaboration between Spain and Portugal. The agreement has been signed by Caterina Biscari, director of ALBA, and Paulo Ferrão, president of the Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia (FCT), under the auspices of Pedro Duque, minister of Science, Innovation and Universities of the Spanish Government, Manuel Heitor, minister of Science Technology and Higher Education of Portugal, and Àngels Chacón, regional minister of Business and Knowledge of the Catalan Government and current chair of the ALBA Rector Council.

The Portuguese scientific community has been using the ALBA Synchrotron since the beginning of its operation in 2012. Nowadays, Portugal is the 5th country that performs more experiments at ALBA, after Germany, France, Italy and the United Kingdom. They have obtained 60% of requested beamtime and have carried out experiments mainly in biology, protein crystallography and materials science.

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Image: Images of the signing agreement ceremony, held at the ALBA Synchrotron. From left to right, Caterina Biscari, director of the ALBA Synchrotron, Àngels Chacón, regional minister of Business and Knowledge of the Catalan government, Pedro Duque, minister of Science, Innovation and Universities of the Spanish Government, Manuel Heitor, minister of Science Technology and Higher Education of Portugal, and Paulo Ferrão, president of the Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia (FCT). In the last picture, members of the ALBA Synchrotron management, Joan Gómez Pallarés, General director of Research from the Catalan government, and Ramon Pascual, honorary president of ALBA.

Synchrotron light unveils new insights about amytrophic lateral sclerosis

Synergetic combination of different imaging and spectroscopic synchrotron techniques performed in ALBA and APS (USA) has discovered new aspects about astrocytes cells of this neurodegenerative disease.

Results, published in Analytical Chemistry, show significant differences between ALS and control astrocytes, including structural, chemical and macromolecular anomalies. Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is a fatal progressive neurodegenerative disease that causes the degeneration and death of neurons that control voluntary muscles. Still today the causes of this disease are unknown in 90% of the cases. However, some of them are caused by the mutation of sod1 gene. This gene encodes an enzyme (SOD1) that is involved in cellular protection against oxidative stress. Mutations dramatically alter the biochemical properties of SOD1, in particular its metal binding affinity and its anti-oxidative activity levels. But it is still unknown how these mutations block the normal cell function and lead to death of motor neurons. The ALBA Synchrotron, in collaboration with researchers from the University of Belgrade Pavle Andjus and Stefan Stamenković (who accomplished his PhD thesis using these results) and Vladan Lučić from Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry (Germany), has studied with synchrotron light techniques and classical biochemical laboratory approaches the cellular structural and biochemical changes of this gene mutation in a transgenic animal model of ALS. In particular, scientists have analysed astrocytes, one kind of brain cells that are key players in pathological processes of this disease.

>Read more on the ALBA website

Image: Researcher Tanja Dučić during the experiment performed at ALBA, at the MIRAS beamline.

From Pakistan to Barcelona, from scientists to friends

Shamila Imtiaz and Sidra Ibadat happily describe their experience during their research internship at ALBA within the framework of the Open Sesame European project.

Shamila Imtiaz (31 years old, PhD candidate and Chemistry junior scientist at PINSTECH Islamabad) and Sidra Ibadat (25 years old, MS Physics Student at the International Islamic University Islamabad) happily describe their experience during their research internship at ALBA. They come from Pakistan and have been granted by the H2020 Open Sesame project to spend 8 weeks at our facility in order to widen their expertise in synchrotron-based Fourier Transform Infrared Microspectroscopy SR-FTIRM at the infrared beamline MIRAS. For both of them, this is their first experience in Europe and, apart from their scientific activity, they are enjoying their walks, their talks and taking care of Shamila’s 9-month old baby. Additionally, ALBA is “proud to help in the development of the scientific careers of young mothers here and elsewhere”, says Miguel Ángel García Aranda, ALBA Scientific Director

“The situation in Pakistan has greatly changed in the past years, there are more women than men in science studies but it’s not easy to find funding opportunities to continue with the studies”, says Sidra. “The Open Sesame project has been a great opportunity for us for visiting and seeing how a synchrotron light source works and bring back all this knowledge to our country”, according to Shamila. “Having access to more sophisticated tools that those in Pakistan can boost our research projects”, continues Sidra.

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Mycoplasma genitalium’s cell adhesion mechanism revealed

Mycoplasma genitalium is a sexually transmitted bacterium responsible for several genitourinary disorders.

An estimated 1% of the adult population is infected with this bacterium. Using XALOC beamline at the ALBA Synchrotron it has been defined the structure of the protein involved in the pathogen’s adhesion process. The discovery opens the door to defining new therapeutic strategies to fight this pathogen which is becoming more and more resistant to antibiotics.

Researchers from the Molecular Biology Institute of Barcelona (IBMB-CSIC) and the Institute of Biotechnology and Biomedicine (IBB-UAB) have discovered the mechanism by which the bacterium Mycoplasma genitalium (Mgen) adheres to human cells. This adhesion is essential for the onset of bacterial infection and subsequent disease development.
Mgen is an emerging pathogen responsible for several infectious genitourinary disorders. In men, it is the most common cause of urethritis (15-20%) while in women, it has been associated with cervicitis, pelvic inflammatory disease, premature birth and spontaneous abortions. So far, it was known that adherence to the genitourinary tract was possible thanks to proteins known as adhesins, which recognise specific cell surface receptors.
In this study, IBMB-CSIC researchers determined the three-dimensional structure of the Mgen’s P110 adhesins interacting with these cell receptors using X-rays diffraction and protein crystallography at the XALOC beamline. “We made a protein crystal of the P110 adhesin bound to these receptors and diffracted with the synchrotron’s X-rays to determine the exact position of the atoms within the protein, and we were able to decipher the three-dimensional structure”, explains IBMB researcher David Aparicio.

>Read more on the ALBA website

Image: Overall structure of P110. Two views, 90° apart from each other, of the extracellular region of P110 that is formed by a large N-domain, with a seven blade β-propeller (green), the crown (brown), and the C-domain (orange). In the right side panel the view is along the central axis of the β-propeller. The situation of the seven blades in the propeller is explicitly indicated showing that the two terminal blades I and VII are close to the C-terminal domain and opposite to the crown.

 

Analysing the structure of biopolymers for the food industry

A research group from the Institute of Agrochemistry and Food Technology (IATA-CSIC) in Valencia is using scattering techniques at the ALBA Synchrotron to develop new packaging systems made of biopolymers, an environmentally friendly solution for the food industry.

Plastic is the packaging material of most of the food we consume nowadays. This results in a severe problem as common plastics are made of petroleum – a limited resource with highly variable price – and supposes a huge environmental impact – most plastic wastes need more than 400 years to decompose.

Researchers from the Food Safety and Preservation department of the Institute of Agrochemistry and Food Technology (IATA-CSIC), located in Paterna (Valencia), are looking for more sustainable ways of producing food packaging with appropriate mechanical and chemical properties. They are investigating biopolymers that can be made from biomass such as algae.
“We need to look for alternative sources which do not compete with food. This is why marine resources such as algae and microalgae are very interesting. They proliferate very quickly, grow in a wide variety of environments and do not interfere with food production”, according to Ámparo López-Rubio, researcher at the IATA-CSIC.

>Read more on the ALBA website

Image: At the left, Juan Carlos Martínez, scientist from the ALBA Synchrotron with users Amparo López Rubio and Marta Martínez Sanz from IATA-CSIC at the NCD-SWEET experimental hutch.

Samtack uses ALBA Synchrotron light for improving food packaging

Thanks to the CALIPSOplus European project, Samtack company is analysing at ALBA nanoparticles contained in a new food packaging system that will prevent food oxidation and extend its lifetime.

We all expect to purchase high quality and fresh food that, even if it has been kept for few days in the supermarket shelf, it still maintains its optimum safety and quality such as well as flavor. Different ambient conditions can modify food quality: moisture can affect the crispness of the product, oxygen can oxidize food with large fat components (e.g. potato chips) and change its taste, while light can degrade vitamins from milk or even remove the aromatic and volatile components from ground coffee and off-taste. Hence, different barriers are required to protect food from moisture, oxygen or light and that’s the point where packaging plays a key role. Packaging acts as a barrier and extends the product’s shelf life while contributing to diminish the amount of food that is thrown away and avoiding overproduction of food.

Samtack, founded in 1988 and based in Esparreguera (Barcelona), is a manufacturer of glues and adhesives specialized in the sector of graphic arts and packaging. Samtack has developed a new flexible multilayer system, in collaboration with the University of Zaragoza and the Complutense University of Madrid, that contains Selenium nanoparticles and is capable to increase food shelf life.

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Towards oxide-integrated epitaxial graphene-based spin-orbitronics

An international team of researchers from IMDEA Nanociencia and Complutense and Autónoma universities in Madrid, the Institut Néel in Grenoble and the ALBA Synchrotron in Barcelona has elucidated a new property of Graphene/Ferromagnetic interfaces: the existence of a sizable magnetic unidirectional interaction, technically a Dzyaloshinskii–Moriya Interaction of Rashba origin, which is responsible for establishing a chiral character to magnetic domain wall structures.

A major challenge for future spintronics is to develop suitable spin transport channels with long spin lifetime and propagation length. Graphene can meet these requirements, even at room temperature. On the other side, taking advantage of the fast motion of chiral textures, that is, Néel-type domain walls and magnetic skyrmions, can satisfy the demands for high-density data storage, low power consumption, and high processing speed. The integration of graphene as an efficient spin transport channel in the chiral domain walls technology depends on the ability to fabricate graphene-based perpendicular magnetic anisotropy (PMA) systems with tailored interfacial SOC.

Studies on graphene-based magnetic systems are not abundant and, typically, make use of metallic single crystals as substrates which jeopardize the exploration of their transport properties (since the current is drained by the substrate). To solve this challenge, the IMDEA Nanociencia leading team succeeded to fabricate high-quality epitaxial asymmetric gr/Co/Pt(111) structures grown on (111)-oriented oxide substrates. The quality of the interfaces was checked by low-energy electron diffraction and also by advanced high-resolution transmission microscopy at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid (UCM) microscopy centre and resonant X-ray specular reflectivity at BOREAS beamline at ALBA (see fig.1). The magnetic anisotropy and properties were investigated by magneto-optical Kerr magnetometry in IMDEA and Universidad Autónoma de Madrid (UAM) and complemented with element resolved XMCD magnetometry also at BOREAS beamline. Finally, the chirality of the magnetic domain walls was analysed using a customized magneto-optical Kerr effect microscope and pulse field electronics in collaboration with the team at Institut Néel in Grenoble.

>Read more on the ALBA website