Graphene and neurons in a UK-Italy-Spain collaboration

There’s been a lot of talk about using graphene-based implants in the brain due to the material’s flexibility along with its other properties. A step forward has been taking according to a Jan. 29, 2016 news item on phys.org,

Researchers have successfully demonstrated how it is possible to interface graphene – a two-dimensional form of carbon – with neurons, or nerve cells, while maintaining the integrity of these vital cells. The work may be used to build graphene-based electrodes that can safely be implanted in the brain, offering promise for the restoration of sensory functions for amputee or paralysed patients, or for individuals with motor disorders such as epilepsy or Parkinson’s disease.

A Jan. 29, 2016 Cambridge University press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail,

Previously, other groups had shown that it is possible to use treated graphene to interact with neurons. However the signal to noise ratio from this interface was very low. By developing methods of working with untreated graphene, the researchers retained the material’s electrical conductivity, making it a significantly better electrode.

“For the first time we interfaced graphene to neurons directly,” said Professor Laura Ballerini of the University of Trieste in Italy. “We then tested the ability of neurons to generate electrical signals known to represent brain activities, and found that the neurons retained their neuronal signalling properties unaltered. This is the first functional study of neuronal synaptic activity using uncoated graphene based materials.”

Our understanding of the brain has increased to such a degree that by interfacing directly between the brain and the outside world we can now harness and control some of its functions. For instance, by measuring the brain’s electrical impulses, sensory functions can be recovered. This can be used to control robotic arms for amputee patients or any number of basic processes for paralysed patients – from speech to movement of objects in the world around them. Alternatively, by interfering with these electrical impulses, motor disorders (such as epilepsy or Parkinson’s) can start to be controlled.

Scientists have made this possible by developing electrodes that can be placed deep within the brain. These electrodes connect directly to neurons and transmit their electrical signals away from the body, allowing their meaning to be decoded.

However, the interface between neurons and electrodes has often been problematic: not only do the electrodes need to be highly sensitive to electrical impulses, but they need to be stable in the body without altering the tissue they measure.

Too often the modern electrodes used for this interface (based on tungsten or silicon) suffer from partial or complete loss of signal over time. This is often caused by the formation of scar tissue from the electrode insertion, which prevents the electrode from moving with the natural movements of the brain due to its rigid nature.

Graphene has been shown to be a promising material to solve these problems, because of its excellent conductivity, flexibility, biocompatibility and stability within the body.

Based on experiments conducted in rat brain cell cultures, the researchers found that untreated graphene electrodes interfaced well with neurons. By studying the neurons with electron microscopy and immunofluorescence the researchers found that they remained healthy, transmitting normal electric impulses and, importantly, none of the adverse reactions which lead to the damaging scar tissue were seen.

According to the researchers, this is the first step towards using pristine graphene-based materials as an electrode for a neuro-interface. In future, the researchers will investigate how different forms of graphene, from multiple layers to monolayers, are able to affect neurons, and whether tuning the material properties of graphene might alter the synapses and neuronal excitability in new and unique ways. “Hopefully this will pave the way for better deep brain implants to both harness and control the brain, with higher sensitivity and fewer unwanted side effects,” said Ballerini.

“We are currently involved in frontline research in graphene technology towards biomedical applications,” said Professor Maurizio Prato from the University of Trieste. “In this scenario, the development and translation in neurology of graphene-based high-performance biodevices requires the exploration of the interactions between graphene nano- and micro-sheets with the sophisticated signalling machinery of nerve cells. Our work is only a first step in that direction.”

“These initial results show how we are just at the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the potential of graphene and related materials in bio-applications and medicine,” said Professor Andrea Ferrari, Director of the Cambridge Graphene Centre. “The expertise developed at the Cambridge Graphene Centre allows us to produce large quantities of pristine material in solution, and this study proves the compatibility of our process with neuro-interfaces.”

The research was funded by the Graphene Flagship [emphasis mine],  a European initiative which promotes a collaborative approach to research with an aim of helping to translate graphene out of the academic laboratory, through local industry and into society.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Graphene-Based Interfaces Do Not Alter Target Nerve Cells by Alessandra Fabbro, Denis Scaini, Verónica León, Ester Vázquez, Giada Cellot, Giulia Privitera, Lucia Lombardi, Felice Torrisi, Flavia Tomarchio, Francesco Bonaccorso, Susanna Bosi, Andrea C. Ferrari, Laura Ballerini, and Maurizio Prato. ACS Nano, 2016, 10 (1), pp 615–623 DOI: 10.1021/acsnano.5b05647 Publication Date (Web): December 23, 2015

Copyright © 2015 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

There are a couple things I found a bit odd about this project. First, all of the funding is from the Graphene Flagship initiative. I was expecting to see at least some funding from the European Union’s other mega-sized science initiative, the Human Brain Project. Second, there was no mention of Spain nor were there any quotes from the Spanish researchers. For the record, the Spanish institutions represented were: University of Castilla-La Mancha, Carbon Nanobiotechnology Laboratory, and the Basque Foundation for Science.

‘Beleafing’ in magic; a new type of battery

A Jan. 28, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily announces the ‘beleaf’,

Scientists have a new recipe for batteries: Bake a leaf, and add sodium. They used a carbonized oak leaf, pumped full of sodium, as a demonstration battery’s negative terminal, or anode, according to a paper published yesterday in the journal ACS Applied Materials Interfaces.

Scientists baked a leaf to demonstrate a battery. Credit: Image courtesy of Maryland NanoCenter

Scientists baked a leaf to demonstrate a battery.
Credit: Image courtesy of Maryland NanoCenter

A Jan. ??, 2016 Maryland NanoCenter (University of Maryland) news release, which originated the news item, provides more information about the nature (pun intended) of the research,

“Leaves are so abundant. All we had to do was pick one up off the ground here on campus,” said Hongbian Li, a visiting professor at the University of Maryland’s department of materials science and engineering and one of the main authors of the paper. Li is a member of the faculty at the National Center for Nanoscience and Technology in Beijing, China.

Other studies have shown that melon skin, banana peels and peat moss can be used in this way, but a leaf needs less preparation.

The scientists are trying to make a battery using sodium where most rechargeable batteries sold today use lithium. Sodium would hold more charge, but can’t handle as many charge-and-discharge cycles as lithium can.

One of the roadblocks has been finding an anode material that is compatible with sodium, which is slightly larger than lithium. Some scientists have explored graphene, dotted with various materials to attract and retain the sodium, but these are time consuming and expensive to produce.  In this case, they simply heated the leaf for an hour at 1,000 degrees C (don’t try this at home) to burn off all but the underlying carbon structure.

The lower side of the maple [?] leaf is studded with pores for the leaf to absorb water. In this new design, the pores absorb the sodium electrolyte. At the top, the layers of carbon that made the leaf tough become sheets of nanostructured carbon to absorb the sodium that carries the charge.

“The natural shape of a leaf already matches a battery’s needs: a low surface area, which decreases defects; a lot of small structures packed closely together, which maximizes space; and internal structures of the right size and shape to be used with sodium electrolyte,” said Fei Shen, a visiting student in the department of materials science and engineering and the other main author of the paper.

“We have tried other natural materials, such as wood fiber, to make a battery,” said Liangbing Hu, an assistant professor of materials science and engineering. “A leaf is designed by nature to store energy for later use, and using leaves in this way could make large-scale storage environmentally friendly.”

The next step, Hu said, is “to investigate different types of leaves to find the best thickness, structure and flexibility” for electrical energy storage.  The researchers have no plans to commercialize at this time.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Carbonized-leaf Membrane with Anisotropic Surfaces for Sodium-ion Battery by Hongbian Li, Fei Shen, Wei Luo, Jiaqi Dai, Xiaogang Han, Yanan Chen, Yonggang Yao, Hongli Zhu, Kun Fu, Emily Hitz, and Liangbing Hu. ACS Appl. Mater. Interfaces, 2016, 8 (3), pp 2204–2210 DOI: 10.1021/acsami.5b10875 Publication Date (Web): January 4, 2016

Copyright © 2016 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

A study in contrasts: innovation and education strategies in US and British Columbia (Canada)

It’s always interesting to contrast two approaches to the same issue, in this case, innovation and education strategies designed to improve the economies of the United States and of British Columbia, a province in Canada.

One of the major differences regarding education in the US and in Canada is that the Canadian federal government, unlike the US federal government, has no jurisdiction over the matter. Education is strictly a provincial responsibility.

I recently wrote a commentary (a Jan. 19, 2016 posting) about the BC government’s Jan. 18, 2016 announcement of its innovation strategy in a special emphasis on the education aspect. Premier Christy Clark focused largely on the notion of embedding courses on computer coding in schools from K-12 (kindergarten through grade 12) as Jonathon Narvey noted in his Jan. 19, 2016 event recap for Betakit,

While many in the tech sector will be focused on the short-term benefits of a quick injection of large capital [a $100M BC Tech Fund as part of a new strategy was announced in Dec. 2015 but details about the new #BCTECH Strategy were not shared until Jan. 18, 2016], the long-term benefits for the local tech sector are being seeded in local schools. More than 600,000 BC students will be getting basic skills in the K-12 curriculum, with coding academies, more work experience electives and partnerships between high school and post-secondary institutions.

Here’s what I had to say in my commentary (from the Jan. 19, 2016 posting),

… the government wants to embed  computer coding into the education system for K-12 (kindergarten to grade 12). One determined reporter (Canadian Press if memory serves) attempted to find out how much this would cost. No answer was forthcoming although there were many words expended. Whether this failure was due to ignorance (disturbing!) or a reluctance to share (also disturbing!) was impossible to tell. Another reporter (Georgia Straight) asked about equipment (coding can be taught with pen and paper but hardware is better). … Getting back to the reporter’s question, no answer was forthcoming although the speaker was loquacious.

Another reporter asked if the government had found any jurisdictions doing anything similar regarding computer coding. It seems they did consider other jurisdictions although it was claimed that BC is the first to strike out in this direction. Oddly, no one mentioned Estonia, known in some circles as E-stonia, where the entire school system was online by the late 1990s in an initiative known as the ‘Tiger Leap Foundation’ which also supported computer coding classes in secondary school (there’s more in Tim Mansel’s May 16, 2013 article about Estonia’s then latest initiative to embed computer coding into grade school.) …

Aside from the BC government’s failure to provide details, I am uncomfortable with what I see as an overemphasis on computer coding that suggests a narrow focus on what constitutes a science and technology strategy for education. I find the US approach closer to what I favour although I may be biased since they are building their strategy around nanotechnology education.

The US approach had been announced in dribs and drabs until recently when a Jan. 26, 2016 news item on Nanotechnology Now indicated a broad-based plan for nanotechnology education (and computer coding),

Over the past 15 years, the Federal Government has invested over $22 billion in R&D under the auspices of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) to understand and control matter at the nanoscale and develop applications that benefit society. As these nanotechnology-enabled applications become a part of everyday life, it is important for students to have a basic understanding of material behavior at the nanoscale, and some states have even incorporated nanotechnology concepts into their K-12 science standards. Furthermore, application of the novel properties that exist at the nanoscale, from gecko-inspired climbing gloves and invisibility cloaks, to water-repellent coatings on clothes or cellphones, can spark students’ excitement about science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

An earlier Jan. 25, 2016 White House blog posting by Lisa Friedersdorf and Lloyd Whitman introduced the notion that nanotechnology is viewed as foundational and a springboard for encouraging interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) careers while outlining several formal and information education efforts,

The Administration’s updated Strategy for American Innovation, released in October 2015, identifies nanotechnology as one of the emerging “general-purpose technologies”—a technology that, like the steam engine, electricity, and the Internet, will have a pervasive impact on our economy and our society, with the ability to create entirely new industries, create jobs, and increase productivity. To reap these benefits, we must train our Nation’s students for these high-tech jobs of the future. Fortunately, the multidisciplinary nature of nanotechnology and the unique and fascinating phenomena that occur at the nanoscale mean that nanotechnology is a perfect topic to inspire students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

The Nanotechnology: Super Small Science series [mentioned in my Jan. 21, 2016 posting] is just the latest example of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI)’s efforts to educate and inspire our Nation’s students. Other examples include:

The announcement about computer coding and courses being integrated in the US education curricula K-12 was made in US President Barack Obama’s 2016 State of the Union speech and covered in a Jan. 30, 2016 article by Jessica Hullinger for Fast Company,

In his final State Of The Union address earlier this month, President Obama called for providing hands-on computer science classes for all students to make them “job ready on day one.” Today, he is unveiling how he plans to do that with his upcoming budget.

The President’s Computer Science for All Initiative seeks to provide $4 billion in funding for states and an additional $100 million directly to school districts in a push to provide access to computer science training in K-12 public schools. The money would go toward things like training teachers, providing instructional materials, and getting kids involved in computer science early in elementary and middle school.

There are more details in the Hullinger’s article and in a Jan. 30, 2016 White House blog posting by Megan Smith,

Computer Science for All is the President’s bold new initiative to empower all American students from kindergarten through high school to learn computer science and be equipped with the computational thinking skills they need to be creators in the digital economy, not just consumers, and to be active citizens in our technology-driven world. Our economy is rapidly shifting, and both educators and business leaders are increasingly recognizing that computer science (CS) is a “new basic” skill necessary for economic opportunity and social mobility.

CS for All builds on efforts already being led by parents, teachers, school districts, states, and private sector leaders from across the country.

Nothing says one approach has to be better than the other as there’s usually more than one way to accomplish a set of goals. As well, it’s unfair to expect a provincial government to emulate the federal government of a larger country with more money to spend. I just wish the BC government (a) had shared details such as the budget allotment for their initiative and (b) would hint at a more imaginative, long range view of STEM education.

Going back to Estonia one last time, in addition to the country’s recent introduction of computer coding classes in grade school, it has also embarked on a nanotechnology/nanoscience educational and entrepreneurial programme as noted in my Sept. 30, 2014 posting,

The University of Tartu (Estonia) announced in a Sept. 29, 2014 press release an educational and entrepreneurial programme about nanotechnology/nanoscience for teachers and students,

To bring nanoscience closer to pupils, educational researchers of the University of Tartu decided to implement the European Union LLP Comenius project “Quantum Spin-Off – connecting schools with high-tech research and entrepreneurship”. The objective of the project is to build a kind of a bridge: at one end, pupils can familiarise themselves with modern science, and at the other, experience its application opportunities at high-tech enterprises. “We also wish to inspire these young people to choose a specialisation related to science and technology in the future,” added Lukk [Maarika Lukk, Coordinator of the project].

The pupils can choose between seven topics of nanotechnology: the creation of artificial muscles, microbiological fuel elements, manipulation of nanoparticles, nanoparticles and ionic liquids as oil additives, materials used in regenerative medicine, deposition and 3D-characterisation of atomically designed structures and a topic covered in English, “Artificial robotic fish with EAP elements”.

Learning is based on study modules in the field of nanotechnology. In addition, each team of pupils will read a scientific publication, selected for them by an expert of that particular field. In that way, pupils will develop an understanding of the field and of scientific texts. On the basis of the scientific publication, the pupils prepare their own research project and a business plan suitable for applying the results of the project.

In each field, experts of the University of Tartu will help to understand the topics. Participants will visit a nanotechnology research laboratory and enterprises using nanotechnologies.

The project lasts for two years and it is also implemented in Belgium, Switzerland and Greece.

As they say, time will tell.

Cellulose-based nanogenerators to power biomedical implants?

This cellulose nanogenerator research comes from India. A Jan. 27, 2016 American Chemical Society (ACS) news release makes the announcement,

Implantable electronics that can deliver drugs, monitor vital signs and perform other health-related roles are on the horizon. But finding a way to power them remains a challenge. Now scientists have built a flexible nanogenerator out of cellulose, an abundant natural material, that could potentially harvest energy from the body — its heartbeats, blood flow and other almost imperceptible but constant movements. …

Efforts to convert the energy of motion — from footsteps, ocean waves, wind and other movement sources — are well underway. Many of these developing technologies are designed with the goal of powering everyday gadgets and even buildings. As such, they don’t need to bend and are often made with stiff materials. But to power biomedical devices inside the body, a flexible generator could provide more versatility. So Md. Mehebub Alam and Dipankar Mandal at Jadavpur University in India set out to design one.

The researchers turned to cellulose, the most abundant biopolymer on earth, and mixed it in a simple process with a kind of silicone called polydimethylsiloxane — the stuff of breast implants — and carbon nanotubes. Repeated pressing on the resulting nanogenerator lit up about two dozen LEDs instantly. It also charged capacitors that powered a portable LCD, a calculator and a wrist watch. And because cellulose is non-toxic, the researchers say the device could potentially be implanted in the body and harvest its internal stretches, vibrations and other movements [also known as, harvesting biomechanical motion].

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Native Cellulose Microfiber-Based Hybrid Piezoelectric Generator for Mechanical Energy Harvesting Utility by
Md. Mehebub Alam and Dipankar Mandal. ACS Appl. Mater. Interfaces, 2016, 8 (3), pp 1555–1558 DOI: 10.1021/acsami.5b08168 Publication Date (Web): January 11, 2016

Copyright © 2016 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

I did take a peek at the paper to see if I could determine whether or not they had used wood-derived cellulose and whether cellulose nanocrystals had been used. Based on the references cited for the paper, I think the answer to both questions is yes.

My latest piece on harvesting biomechanical motion is a June 24, 2014 post where I highlight a research project in Korea and another one in the UK and give links to previous posts on the topic.

Constructing a liver

Chinese researchers have taken a step closer to constructing complex (lifelike) liver tissue according to a Jan. 27, 2016 American Chemical Society (ACS) news release (also on EurekAlert),

Engineered liver tissue could have a range of important uses, from transplants in patients suffering from the organ’s failure to pharmaceutical testing [this usage is sometimes known as liver-on-a-chip]. Now scientists report in ACS’ journal Analytical Chemistry the development of such a tissue, which closely mimics the liver’s complicated microstructure and function more effectively than existing models.

The liver serves a critical role in digesting food and detoxifying the body. But due to a variety of factors, including viral infections, alcoholism and drug reactions, the organ can develop chronic or acute problems. When it doesn’t work well, a person can suffer abdominal pain, swelling, nausea and other symptoms. Complete liver failure can be life-threatening and can require a transplant, a procedure that currently depends on human donors. To curtail this reliance and provide an improved model for predicting drugs’ side effects, scientists have been engineering liver tissue in the lab. But so far, they haven’t achieved the complex architecture of the real thing. Jinyi Wang and colleagues came up with a new approach.

Wang’s team built a microfluidics-based tissue that copies the liver’s complex lobules, the organ’s tiny structures that resemble wheels with spokes. They did this with human cells from a liver and an aorta, the body’s main artery. In the lab, the engineered tissue had a metabolic rate that was closer to real-life levels than other liver models, and it successfully simulated how a real liver would react to various drug combinations. The researchers conclude their approach could lead to the development of functional liver tissue for clinical applications and screening drugs for side effects and potentially harmful interactions.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

On-Chip Construction of Liver Lobule-like Microtissue and Its Application for Adverse Drug Reaction Assay by Chao Ma, Lei Zhao, En-Min Zhou, Juan Xu, Shaofei Shen, and Jinyi Wang. Northwest A&F University, China Anal. Chem., Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/acs.analchem.5b03869 Publication Date (Web): January 7, 2016

Copyright © 2016 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

In a teleconference earlier this month (January 2016), I spoke to researchers at the University of Malaya, Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM), and Harvard University about a joint lung and nanomedicine research project where I asked researcher Joseph Brain (Harvard) about using lung-on-a-chip testing in place of in vivo (animal) testing and he indicated more confidence in the ‘precision cut lung slices’ technique. (You can find out more about the Malaysian project in my Jan. 12, 2016 posting but there’s only a brief mention of Brain’s preferred alternative animal testing technique.)

January 31, 2016 deadlines for early bird tickets (ESOF) and conference abstracts (emerging technologies)

ESOF 2016 (EuroScience Open Forum)

Early bird tickets for this biennial science conference are available until Jan.  31, 2016 according to a Jan. 18, 2016 email notice,

Our most affordable tickets are available to purchase until the end of the month, so make sure you get yours before they disappear. Prices start from only £75 for a full four-day pass for early careers researchers (up to 5 years post doc), and £225 for a full delegate pass. All registrations are entitled to a year long complimentary subscription to Nature at this time.

You can also book your accommodation when you register to attend ESOF. We have worked hard with our city partners to bring you the best deals for your stay in Manchester. With the summer set to be busy with not only ESOF but major international sporting events, make sure you take advantage of these deals.

To register to attend please click here

You can find out more about the event which takes place from July 23 – 27, 2016 in Manchester, England here and/or you can watch this video,

For any interested journalists, media registration has opened (from the Jan. 18, 2016 notice),

Media registration opens

We are delighted to announce our ESOF press accreditation is available for journalists and science communications professionals to register for the conference. Accreditation provides complimentary access to the full ESOF programme, social events and a range of exclusive press only activities. Further details of the eligibility criteria and registration process can be found here.

Nature Publishing Group offers journalists a travel grant which will cover most if not all the expenses associated with attending 2016 ESOF (from the ESOF Nature Travel Grant webpage),

The Nature Travel Grant Scheme offers journalists and members of media organisations from around the world the opportunity to attend ESOF for free. The grant offers complimentary registration as well as help covering travel and accommodation costs.

1. Purpose

Created by EuroScience, the biennial ESOF – EuroScience Open Forum – meeting is the largest pan-European general science conference dedicated to scientific research and innovation. At ESOF meetings leading scientists, researchers, journalists, business people, policy makers and the general public from all over the world discuss new discoveries and debate the direction that research is taking in the sciences, humanities and social sciences.

Springer Nature is a leading global research, educational and professional publisher, home to an array of respected and trusted brands providing quality content through a range of innovative products and services, including the journal Nature. Springer Nature was formed in 2015 through the merger of Nature Publishing Group, Palgrave Macmillan, Macmillan Education and Springer Science+Business Media. Nature Publishing Group has supported ESOF since its very first meeting in 2004.

Similar to the 2012 and 2014 edition of meeting, Springer Nature is funding the Nature Travel Grant Scheme for journalists to attend ESOF2016 with the aim to increase the impact of ESOF.

2. The Scheme

In addition to free registration, the Nature Travel Grant Scheme offers a lump sum of £450 for UK based journalists, £600 for journalists based in Europe and £800 for journalists based outside of Europe, to help cover the costs of travel and accommodation to attend ESOF2016.

3. Who can apply?

All journalists irrespective of their gender, age, nationality, place of residence and media type (paper, radio, TV, web) are welcome to apply. Media accreditation will be required.

4. Application procedure

To submit an application sign into the EuroScience Conference and Membership Platform (ESCMP) and click on “Apply for a Grant”. Follow the application procedure.

On submitting the application form for travel grants, you agree to the full acceptance of the rules and to the decision taken by the Selection Committee.

The deadline for submitting an application is February 29th 2016, 12:00 pm CET.

Good luck!

4th Annual Governance of Emerging Technologies: Law, Policy and Ethics Conference

Here’s more about the conference (deadline for abstracts is Jan. 31, 2016) from the conference’s Call for Abstract’s webpage,

Fourth Annual Conference on
Governance of Emerging Technologies: Law, Policy, and Ethics

May 24-26, 2016, Tempe, Arizona

Call for abstracts:

The co-sponsors invite submission of abstracts for proposed presentations.  Submitters of abstracts need not provide a written paper, although provision will be made for posting and possible post-conference publication of papers for those presenters interested in such options.  Although abstracts are invited for any aspect or topic relating to the governance of emerging technologies, some particular themes that will be emphasized at this year’s conference include existential or catastrophic risks, governance implications of algorithms, resilience and emerging technologies, artificial intelligence, military technologies, and gene editing.

Abstracts should not exceed 500 words.
Abstracts must be submitted by January 31, 2016 to be considered.
Decisions on abstracts will be made by the program committee and communicated by February 29 [2016]. 

Funding: The sponsors will pay for the conference registration (including all conference meals) for one presenter for each accepted abstract.  In addition, we will have limited funds available for travel subsidies in whole or in part.  After completing your abstract online, you will be asked if you wish to apply for a travel subsidy.  Any such additional funding will be awarded based on the strength of the abstract, demonstration of financial need, and/or the potential to encourage student authors and early-career scholars.  Accepted presenters for whom conference funding is not available will need to pay their own transportation and hotel costs.

For more information, please contact Lauren Burkhart at Lauren.Burkhart@asu.edu.

You don’t often see conference organizers offering to pay registration and meals for a single presenter from each accepted submission. Good luck!

When an atom more or less makes a big difference

As scientists continue exploring the nanoscale, it seems that finding the number of atoms in your particle makes a difference is no longer so surprising. From a Jan. 28, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily,

Combining experimental investigations and theoretical simulations, researchers have explained why platinum nanoclusters of a specific size range facilitate the hydrogenation reaction used to produce ethane from ethylene. The research offers new insights into the role of cluster shapes in catalyzing reactions at the nanoscale, and could help materials scientists optimize nanocatalysts for a broad class of other reactions.

A Jan. 28, 2016 Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) news release (*also on EurekAlert*), which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

At the macro-scale, the conversion of ethylene has long been considered among the reactions insensitive to the structure of the catalyst used. However, by examining reactions catalyzed by platinum clusters containing between 9 and 15 atoms, researchers in Germany and the United States found that at the nanoscale, that’s no longer true. The shape of nanoscale clusters, they found, can dramatically affect reaction efficiency.

While the study investigated only platinum nanoclusters and the ethylene reaction, the fundamental principles may apply to other catalysts and reactions, demonstrating how materials at the very smallest size scales can provide different properties than the same material in bulk quantities. …

“We have re-examined the validity of a very fundamental concept on a very fundamental reaction,” said Uzi Landman, a Regents’ Professor and F.E. Callaway Chair in the School of Physics at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “We found that in the ultra-small catalyst range, on the order of a nanometer in size, old concepts don’t hold. New types of reactivity can occur because of changes in one or two atoms of a cluster at the nanoscale.”

The widely-used conversion process actually involves two separate reactions: (1) dissociation of H2 molecules into single hydrogen atoms, and (2) their addition to the ethylene, which involves conversion of a double bond into a single bond. In addition to producing ethane, the reaction can also take an alternative route that leads to the production of ethylidyne, which poisons the catalyst and prevents further reaction.

The project began with Professor Ueli Heiz and researchers in his group at the Technical University of Munich experimentally examining reaction rates for clusters containing 9, 10, 11, 12 or 13 platinum atoms that had been placed atop a magnesium oxide substrate. The 9-atom nanoclusters failed to produce a significant reaction, while larger clusters catalyzed the ethylene hydrogenation reaction with increasingly better efficiency. The best reaction occurred with 13-atom clusters.

Bokwon Yoon, a research scientist in Georgia Tech’s Center for Computational Materials Science, and Landman, the center’s director, then used large-scale first-principles quantum mechanical simulations to understand how the size of the clusters – and their shape – affected the reactivity. Using their simulations, they discovered that the 9-atom cluster resembled a symmetrical “hut,” while the larger clusters had bulges that served to concentrate electrical charges from the substrate.

“That one atom changes the whole activity of the catalyst,” Landman said. “We found that the extra atom operates like a lightning rod. The distribution of the excess charge from the substrate helps facilitate the reaction. Platinum 9 has a compact shape that doesn’t facilitate the reaction, but adding just one atom changes everything.”

Here’s an illustration featuring the difference between a 9 atom cluster and a 10 atom cluster,

A single atom makes a difference in the catalytic properties of platinum nanoclusters. Shown are platinum 9 (top) and platinum 10 (bottom). (Credit: Uzi Landman, Georgia Tech)

A single atom makes a difference in the catalytic properties of platinum nanoclusters. Shown are platinum 9 (top) and platinum 10 (bottom). (Credit: Uzi Landman, Georgia Tech)

The news release explains why the larger clusters function as catalysts,

Nanoclusters with 13 atoms provided the maximum reactivity because the additional atoms shift the structure in a phenomena Landman calls “fluxionality.” This structural adjustment has also been noted in earlier work of these two research groups, in studies of clusters of gold [emphasis mine] which are used in other catalytic reactions.

“Dynamic fluxionality is the ability of the cluster to distort its structure to accommodate the reactants to actually enhance reactivity,” he explained. “Only very small aggregates of metal can show such behavior, which mimics a biochemical enzyme.”

The simulations showed that catalyst poisoning also varies with cluster size – and temperature. The 10-atom clusters can be poisoned at room temperature, while the 13-atom clusters are poisoned only at higher temperatures, helping to account for their improved reactivity.

“Small really is different,” said Landman. “Once you get into this size regime, the old rules of structure sensitivity and structure insensitivity must be assessed for their continued validity. It’s not a question anymore of surface-to-volume ratio because everything is on the surface in these very small clusters.”

While the project examined only one reaction and one type of catalyst, the principles governing nanoscale catalysis – and the importance of re-examining traditional expectations – likely apply to a broad range of reactions catalyzed by nanoclusters at the smallest size scale. Such nanocatalysts are becoming more attractive as a means of conserving supplies of costly platinum.

“It’s a much richer world at the nanoscale than at the macroscopic scale,” added Landman. “These are very important messages for materials scientists and chemists who wish to design catalysts for new purposes, because the capabilities can be very different.”

Along with the experimental surface characterization and reactivity measurements, the first-principles theoretical simulations provide a unique practical means for examining these structural and electronic issues because the clusters are too small to be seen with sufficient resolution using most electron microscopy techniques or traditional crystallography.

“We have looked at how the number of atoms dictates the geometrical structure of the cluster catalysts on the surface and how this geometrical structure is associated with electronic properties that bring about chemical bonding characteristics that enhance the reactions,” Landman added.

I highlighted the news release’s reference to gold nanoclusters as I have noted the number issue in two April 14, 2015 postings, neither of which featured Georgia Tech, Gold atoms: sometimes they’re a metal and sometimes they’re a molecule and Nature’s patterns reflected in gold nanoparticles.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the ‘platinum catalyst’ paper,

Structure sensitivity in the nonscalable regime explored via catalysed ethylene hydrogenation on supported platinum nanoclusters by Andrew S. Crampton, Marian D. Rötzer, Claron J. Ridge, Florian F. Schweinberger, Ueli Heiz, Bokwon Yoon, & Uzi Landman.  Nature Communications 7, Article number: 10389  doi:10.1038/ncomms10389 Published 28 January 2016

This paper is open access.

*’also on EurekAlert’ added Jan. 29, 2016.

Cambridge University researchers tell us why Spiderman can’t exist while Stanford University proves otherwise

A team of zoology researchers at Cambridge University (UK) find themselves in the unenviable position of having their peer-reviewed study used as a source of unintentional humour. I gather zoologists (Cambridge) and engineers (Stanford) don’t have much opportunity to share information.

A Jan. 18, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily announces the Cambridge research findings,

Latest research reveals why geckos are the largest animals able to scale smooth vertical walls — even larger climbers would require unmanageably large sticky footpads. Scientists estimate that a human would need adhesive pads covering 40% of their body surface in order to walk up a wall like Spiderman, and believe their insights have implications for the feasibility of large-scale, gecko-like adhesives.

A Jan. 18, 2016 Cambridge University press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the research and the thinking that led to the researchers’ conclusions,

Dr David Labonte and his colleagues in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology found that tiny mites use approximately 200 times less of their total body area for adhesive pads than geckos, nature’s largest adhesion-based climbers. And humans? We’d need about 40% of our total body surface, or roughly 80% of our front, to be covered in sticky footpads if we wanted to do a convincing Spiderman impression.

Once an animal is big enough to need a substantial fraction of its body surface to be covered in sticky footpads, the necessary morphological changes would make the evolution of this trait impractical, suggests Labonte.

“If a human, for example, wanted to walk up a wall the way a gecko does, we’d need impractically large sticky feet – our shoes would need to be a European size 145 or a US size 114,” says Walter Federle, senior author also from Cambridge’s Department of Zoology.

The researchers say that these insights into the size limits of sticky footpads could have profound implications for developing large-scale bio-inspired adhesives, which are currently only effective on very small areas.

“As animals increase in size, the amount of body surface area per volume decreases – an ant has a lot of surface area and very little volume, and a blue whale is mostly volume with not much surface area” explains Labonte.

“This poses a problem for larger climbing species because, when they are bigger and heavier, they need more sticking power to be able to adhere to vertical or inverted surfaces, but they have comparatively less body surface available to cover with sticky footpads. This implies that there is a size limit to sticky footpads as an evolutionary solution to climbing – and that turns out to be about the size of a gecko.”

Larger animals have evolved alternative strategies to help them climb, such as claws and toes to grip with.

The researchers compared the weight and footpad size of 225 climbing animal species including insects, frogs, spiders, lizards and even a mammal.

“We compared animals covering more than seven orders of magnitude in weight, which is roughly the same as comparing a cockroach to the weight of Big Ben, for example,” says Labonte.

These investigations also gave the researchers greater insights into how the size of adhesive footpads is influenced and constrained by the animals’ evolutionary history.

“We were looking at vastly different animals – a spider and a gecko are about as different as a human is to an ant- but if you look at their feet, they have remarkably similar footpads,” says Labonte.

“Adhesive pads of climbing animals are a prime example of convergent evolution – where multiple species have independently, through very different evolutionary histories, arrived at the same solution to a problem. When this happens, it’s a clear sign that it must be a very good solution.”

The researchers believe we can learn from these evolutionary solutions in the development of large-scale manmade adhesives.

“Our study emphasises the importance of scaling for animal adhesion, and scaling is also essential for improving the performance of adhesives over much larger areas. There is a lot of interesting work still to do looking into the strategies that animals have developed in order to maintain the ability to scale smooth walls, which would likely also have very useful applications in the development of large-scale, powerful yet controllable adhesives,” says Labonte.

There is one other possible solution to the problem of how to stick when you’re a large animal, and that’s to make your sticky footpads even stickier.

“We noticed that within closely related species pad size was not increasing fast enough to match body size, probably a result of evolutionary constraints. Yet these animals can still stick to walls,” says Christofer Clemente, a co-author from the University of the Sunshine Coast [Australia].

“Within frogs, we found that they have switched to this second option of making pads stickier rather than bigger. It’s remarkable that we see two different evolutionary solutions to the problem of getting big and sticking to walls,” says Clemente.

“Across all species the problem is solved by evolving relatively bigger pads, but this does not seem possible within closely related species, probably since there is not enough morphological diversity to allow it. Instead, within these closely related groups, pads get stickier. This is a great example of evolutionary constraint and innovation.”

A researcher at Stanford University (US) took strong exception to the Cambridge team’s conclusions , from a Jan. 28, 2016 article by Michael Grothaus for Fast Company (Note: A link has been removed),

It seems the dreams of the web-slinger’s fans were crushed forever—that is until a rival university swooped in and saved the day. A team of engineers working with mechanical engineering graduate student Elliot Hawkes at Stanford University have announced [in 2014] that they’ve invented a device called “gecko gloves” that proves the Cambridge researchers wrong.

Hawkes has created a video outlining the nature of his dispute with Cambridge University and US tv talk show host, Stephen Colbert who featured the Cambridge University research in one of his monologues,

To be fair to Hawkes, he does prove his point. A Nov. 21, 2014 Stanford University report by Bjorn Carey describes Hawke’s ingenious ‘sticky pads,

Each handheld gecko pad is covered with 24 adhesive tiles, and each of these is covered with sawtooth-shape polymer structures each 100 micrometers long (about the width of a human hair).

The pads are connected to special degressive springs, which become less stiff the further they are stretched. This characteristic means that when the springs are pulled upon, they apply an identical force to each adhesive tile and cause the sawtooth-like structures to flatten.

“When the pad first touches the surface, only the tips touch, so it’s not sticky,” said co-author Eric Eason, a graduate student in applied physics. “But when the load is applied, and the wedges turn over and come into contact with the surface, that creates the adhesion force.”

As with actual geckos, the adhesives can be “turned” on and off. Simply release the load tension, and the pad loses its stickiness. “It can attach and detach with very little wasted energy,” Eason said.

The ability of the device to scale up controllable adhesion to support large loads makes it attractive for several applications beyond human climbing, said Mark Cutkosky, the Fletcher Jones Chair in the School of Engineering and senior author on the paper.

“Some of the applications we’re thinking of involve manufacturing robots that lift large glass panels or liquid-crystal displays,” Cutkosky said. “We’re also working on a project with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to apply these to the robotic arms of spacecraft that could gently latch on to orbital space debris, such as fuel tanks and solar panels, and move it to an orbital graveyard or pitch it toward Earth to burn up.”

Previous work on synthetic and gecko adhesives showed that adhesive strength decreased as the size increased. In contrast, the engineers have shown that the special springs in their device make it possible to maintain the same adhesive strength at all sizes from a square millimeter to the size of a human hand.

The current version of the device can support about 200 pounds, Hawkes said, but, theoretically, increasing its size by 10 times would allow it to carry almost 2,000 pounds.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the Stanford paper,

Human climbing with efficiently scaled gecko-inspired dry adhesives by Elliot W. Hawkes, Eric V. Eason, David L. Christensen, Mark R. Cutkosky. Jurnal of the Royal Society Interface DOI: 10.1098/rsif.2014.0675 Published 19 November 2014

This paper is open access.

To be fair to the Cambridge researchers, It’s stretching it a bit to say that Hawke’s gecko gloves allow someone to be like Spiderman. That’s a very careful, slow climb achieved in a relatively short period of time. Can the human body remain suspended that way for more than a few minutes? How big do your sticky pads have to be if you’re going to have the same wall-climbing ease of movement and staying power of either a gecko or Spiderman?

Here’s a link to and a citation for the Cambridge paper,

Extreme positive allometry of animal adhesive pads and the size limits of adhesion-based climbing by David Labonte, Christofer J. Clemente, Alex Dittrich, Chi-Yun Kuo, Alfred J. Crosby, Duncan J. Irschick, and Walter Federle. PNAS doi: 10.1073/pnas.1519459113

This paper is behind a paywall but there is an open access preprint version, which may differ from the PNAS version, available,

Extreme positive allometry of animal adhesive pads and the size limits of adhesion-based climbing by David Labonte, Christofer J Clemente, Alex Dittrich, Chi-Yun Kuo, Alfred J Crosby, Duncan J Irschick, Walter Federle. bioRxiv
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1101/033845

I hope that if the Cambridge researchers respond, they will be witty rather than huffy. Finally, there’s this gecko image (which I love) from the Cambridge researchers,

 Caption: This image shows a gecko and ant. Credit: Image courtesy of A Hackmann and D Labonte

Caption: This image shows a gecko and ant. Credit: Image courtesy of A Hackmann and D Labonte

Origami and our pop-up future

They should have declared Jan. 25, 2016 ‘L. Mahadevan Day’ at Harvard University. The researcher was listed as an author on two major papers. I covered the first piece of research, 4D printed hydrogels, in this Jan. 26, 2016 posting. Now for Mahadevan’s other work, from a Jan. 27, 2016 news item on Nanotechnology Now,

What if you could make any object out of a flat sheet of paper?

That future is on the horizon thanks to new research by L. Mahadevan, the Lola England de Valpine Professor of Applied Mathematics, Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, and Physics at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). He is also a core faculty member of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, and member of the Kavli Institute for Bionano Science and Technology, at Harvard University.

Mahadevan and his team have characterized a fundamental origami fold, or tessellation, that could be used as a building block to create almost any three-dimensional shape, from nanostructures to buildings. …

A Jan. 26, 2016 Harvard University news release by Leah Burrows, which originated the news item, provides more detail about the specific fold the team has been investigating,

The folding pattern, known as the Miura-ori, is a periodic way to tile the plane using the simplest mountain-valley fold in origami. It was used as a decorative item in clothing at least as long ago as the 15th century. A folded Miura can be packed into a flat, compact shape and unfolded in one continuous motion, making it ideal for packing rigid structures like solar panels.  It also occurs in nature in a variety of situations, such as in insect wings and certain leaves.

“Could this simple folding pattern serve as a template for more complicated shapes, such as saddles, spheres, cylinders, and helices?” asked Mahadevan.

“We found an incredible amount of flexibility hidden inside the geometry of the Miura-ori,” said Levi Dudte, graduate student in the Mahadevan lab and first author of the paper. “As it turns out, this fold is capable of creating many more shapes than we imagined.”

Think surgical stents that can be packed flat and pop-up into three-dimensional structures once inside the body or dining room tables that can lean flat against the wall until they are ready to be used.

“The collapsibility, transportability and deployability of Miura-ori folded objects makes it a potentially attractive design for everything from space-bound payloads to small-space living to laparoscopic surgery and soft robotics,” said Dudte.

Here’s a .gif demonstrating the fold,

This spiral folds rigidly from flat pattern through the target surface and onto the flat-folded plane (Image courtesy of Mahadevan Lab) Harvard University

This spiral folds rigidly from flat pattern through the target surface and onto the flat-folded plane (Image courtesy of Mahadevan Lab) Harvard University

The news release offers some details about the research,

To explore the potential of the tessellation, the team developed an algorithm that can create certain shapes using the Miura-ori fold, repeated with small variations. Given the specifications of the target shape, the program lays out the folds needed to create the design, which can then be laser printed for folding.

The program takes into account several factors, including the stiffness of the folded material and the trade-off between the accuracy of the pattern and the effort associated with creating finer folds – an important characterization because, as of now, these shapes are all folded by hand.

“Essentially, we would like to be able to tailor any shape by using an appropriate folding pattern,” said Mahadevan. “Starting with the basic mountain-valley fold, our algorithm determines how to vary it by gently tweaking it from one location to the other to make a vase, a hat, a saddle, or to stitch them together to make more and more complex structures.”

“This is a step in the direction of being able to solve the inverse problem – given a functional shape, how can we design the folds on a sheet to achieve it,” Dudte said.

“The really exciting thing about this fold is it is completely scalable,” said Mahadevan. “You can do this with graphene, which is one atom thick, or you can do it on the architectural scale.”

Co-authors on the study include Etienne Vouga, currently at the University of Texas at Austin, and Tomohiro Tachi from the University of Tokyo. …

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Programming curvature using origami tessellations by Levi H. Dudte, Etienne Vouga, Tomohiro Tachi, & L. Mahadevan. Nature Materials (2016) doi:10.1038/nmat4540 Published online 25 January 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.