Exploring the science of Iron Man (prior to the opening of Captain America: Civil War, aka, Captain America vs. Iron Man)

Not unexpectedly, there’s a news item about science and Iron Man (it’s getting quite common for the science in movies to be promoted and discussed) just a few weeks before the movie Captain America: Civil War or, as it’s also known, Captain America vs. Iron Man opens in the US. From an April 26, 2016 news item on phys.org,

… how much of our favourite superheros’ power lies in science and how much is complete fiction?

As Iron Man’s name suggests, he wears a suit of “iron” which gives him his abilities—superhuman strength, flight and an arsenal of weapons—and protects him from harm.

In scientific parlance, the Iron man suit is an exoskeleton which is worn outside the body to enhance it.

An April 26, 2016 posting by Chris Marr on the ScienceNetwork Western Australia blog, which originated the news item, provides an interesting overview of exoskeletons and some of the scientific obstacles still to be overcome before they become commonplace,

In the 1960s, the first real powered exoskeleton appeared—a machine integrated with the human frame and movements which provided the wearer with 25 times his natural lifting capacity.

The major drawback then was that the unit itself weighed in at 680kg.

UWA [University of Western Australia] Professor Adrian Keating suggests that some of the technology seen in the latest Marvel blockbuster, such as controlling the exoskeleton with simple thoughts, will be available in the near future by leveraging ongoing advances of multi-disciplinary research teams.

“Dust grain-sized micromachines could be programmed to cooperate to form reconfigurable materials such as the retractable face mask, for example,” Prof Keating says.

However, all of these devices are in need of a power unit small enough to be carried yet providing enough capacity for more than a few minutes of superhuman use, he says.

Does anyone have a spare Arc Reactor?

Currently, most exoskeleton development has been for medical applications, with devices designed to give mobility to amputees and paraplegics, and there are a number in commercial production and use.

Dr Lei Cui, who lectures in Mechatronics at Curtin University, has recently developed both a hand and leg exoskeleton, designed for use by patients who have undergone surgery or have nerve dysfunction, spinal injuries or muscular dysfunction.

“Currently we use an internal battery that lasts about two hours in the glove, which can be programmed for only four different movement patterns,” Dr Cui says.

Dr Cui’s exoskeletons are made from plastic, making them light but offering little protection compared to the titanium exterior of Stark’s favourite suit.

It’s clear that we are a long way from being able to produce a working Iron Man suit at all, let alone one that flies, protects the wearer and has the capacity to fight back.

This is not the first time I’ve featured a science and pop culture story here. You can check out my April 28, 2014 posting for a story about how Captain America’s shield could be a supercapacitor (it also has a link to a North Carolina State University blog featuring science and other comic book heroes) and there is my May 6, 2013 post about Iron Man 3 and a real life injectable nano-network.

As for ScienceNetwork Western Australia, here’s more from their About SWNA page,

ScienceNetwork Western Australia (SNWA) is an online science news service devoted to sharing WA’s achievements in science and technology.

SNWA is produced by Scitech, the state’s science and technology centre and supported by the WA Government’s Office of Science via the Department of the Premier and Cabinet.

Our team of freelance writers work with in-house editors based at Scitech to bring you news from all fields of science, and from the research, government and private industry sectors working throughout the state. Our writers also produce profile stories on scientists. We collaborate with leading WA institutions to bring you Perspectives from prominent WA scientists and opinion leaders.

We also share news of science-related events and information about the greater WA science community including WA’s Chief Scientist, the Premier’s Science Awards, Innovator of the Year Awards and information on regional community science engagement.

Since our commencement in 2003 we have grown to share WA’s stories with local, national and global audiences. Our articles are regularly republished in print and online media in the metropolitan and regional areas.

Bravo to the Western Australia government! I wish there  initiatives of this type in Canada, the closest we have is the French language Agence Science-Presse supported by the Province of Québec.

Bacteria and an anti-superbug coating from Ireland’s Sligo Institute of Technology

Unlike today’s (April 28, 2016) earlier piece about dealing with bacteria, the focus for this research is on superbugs and not the bacteria which form biofilm on medical implants and such. An April 21, 2016 news item on RTE News makes the announcement about a new means of dealing with superbugs,

A discovery by a team of scientists in Ireland could stem the spread of deadly superbugs predicted to kill millions of people worldwide over the coming decades.

The research has found an agent that can be baked into everyday items like smart-phones and door handles to combat the likes of MRSA and E. coli.

The nanotechnology has a 99.9 % kill rate of potentially lethal and drug-resistant bacteria, they say.

Lead scientist Professor Suresh C. Pillai, of Sligo Institute of Technology’s Nanotechnology Research Group, says the discovery is the culmination of 12 years work.

“This is a game changer,” he said.

“This breakthrough will change the whole fight against superbugs. It can effectively control the spread of bacteria.”

An April 21, 2016 Sligo Institute of Technology press release provides some context for the work and a few details about the coating,

News of the discovery comes just days after UK Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne warned that superbugs could become deadlier than cancer and are on course to kill 10 million people globally by 2050.

Speaking at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in Washington, Mr Osborne warned that the problem would slash global GDP by around €100 trillion if it was not tackled.

Using nanotechnology, the discovery is an effective and practical antimicrobial solution — an agent that kills microorganisms or inhibits their growth — that can be used to protect a range of everyday items.

Items include anything made from glass, metallics and ceramics including computer or tablet screens, smartphones, ATMs, door handles, TVs, handrails, lifts, urinals, toilet seats, fridges, microwaves and ceramic floor or wall tiles.

It will be of particular use in hospitals and medical facilities which are losing the battle against the spread of killer superbugs.

Other common uses would include in swimming pools and public buildings, on glass in public buses and trains, sneeze guards protecting food in delis and restaurants as well as in clean rooms in the medical sector.

“It’s absolutely wonderful to finally be at this stage. This breakthrough will change the whole fight against superbugs. It can effectvely control the spread of bacteria,” said Prof. Pillai.

He continued: “Every single person has a sea of bacteria on their hands. The mobile phone is the most contaminated personal item that we can have. Bacteria grows on the phone and can live there for up to five months. As it is contaminated with proteins from saliva and from the hand, It’s fertile land for bacteria and has been shown to carry 30 times more bacteria than a toilet seat.”

The research started at Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT)’s CREST and involves scientists now based at IT Sligo, Dublin City University (DCU) and the University of Surrey. Major researchers included Dr Joanna Carroll and Dr Nigel S. Leyland.

It has been funded for the past eight years by John Browne, founder and CEO of Kastus Technologies Ltd, who is bringing the product to a global market. He was also supported by significant investment from Enterprise Ireland.

As there is nothing that will effectively kill antibiotic-resistant superbugs completely from the surface of items, scientists have been searching for a way to prevent the spread.

This has been in the form of building or ‘baking’ antimicrobial surfaces into products during the manufacturing process.

However, until now, all these materials were toxic or needed UV light in order to make them work. This meant they were not practical for indoor use and had limited commercial application.

“The challenge was the preparation of a solution that was activated by indoor light rather than UV light and we have now done that,” said Prof Pillai.

The new water-based solution can be sprayed onto any glass, ceramic or metallic surface during the production process, rendering the surface 99.9 per cent resistant to superbugs like MRSA, E. coli and other fungi. [emphasis mine]

The solution is sprayed on the product — such as a smartphone glass surface — and then ‘baked’ into it, forming a super-hard surface. The coating is transparent, permanent and scratch resistant and actually forms a harder surface than the original glass or ceramic material.

The team first developed the revolutionary material to work on ceramics and has spent the last five years adapting the formula – which is non-toxic and has no harmful bi-products ‑- to make it work on glass and metallic surfaces.

Research is now underway by the group on how to adapt the solution for use in plastics and paint, allowing even wider use of the protective material.

Prof Pillai, Kastus and the team have obtained a US and a UK patent on the unique process with a number of global patent applications pending. It is rare for such an academic scientific discovery to have such commercial viability.

“I was sold on this from the first moment I heard about it. It’s been a long road to here but it was such a compelling story that it was hard to walk away from so I had to see it through to the end,” said John Browne, Kastus CEO.

He continued: “This is a game changer. The uniqueness of antimicrobia surface treatment means that the applications for it in the real world are endless. The multinational glass manufacturers we are in negotiations with to sell the product to have been searching for years to come up with such a solution but have failed.”

If the coating kills 99.9%, doesn’t that mean 0.1% are immune? If that’s the case, won’t they reproduce and eventually establish themselves as a new kind of superbug?

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

Highly Efficient F, Cu doped TiO2 anti-bacterial visible light active photocatalytic coatings to combat hospital-acquired infections by Nigel S. Leyland, Joanna Podporska-Carroll, John Browne, Steven J. Hinder, Brid Quilty, & Suresh C. Pillai. Scientific Reports 6, Article number: 24770 (2016) doi:10.1038/srep24770 Published online: 21 April 2016

This paper is open access.

Bacteria and an anti-biofilm coating from Ben Gurion University of the Negev (Israel)

This anti-biofilm acts as an anti-adhesive and is another approach to dealing with unwanted bacteria on medical implants and on marine equipment. From an April 25, 2016 news item about the Israeli research on ScienceDaily,

Researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) have developed an innovative anti-biofilm coating, which has significant anti-adhesive potential for a variety of medical and industrial applications.

According to the research published in Advanced Materials Interfaces, anti-adhesive patches that are developed from naturally occurring biomaterials can prevent destructive bacterial biofilm from forming on metal surfaces when they are immersed in water and other damp environments.

An April 25, 2016 American Associates Ben Gurion University of the Negev news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the research further without adding much detail (Note: A link has been removed),

“Our solution addresses a pervasive need to design environmentally friendly materials to impede dangerous surface bacteria growth,” the BGU researchers from the Avram and Stella Goldstein-Goren Department of Biotechnology Engineering explain. “This holds tremendous potential for averting biofilm formed by surface-anchored bacteria and could have a tremendous impact.”

biofouling

Above: SEM micrographs of A. baumannii, P. aeruginosa (PA14), S. marcescens and P.stuartii biofilm architectures. The untreated control surface shows intricate bacteria densely embedded in the matrix. Biofilms were grown statically on the different surfaces.

The anti-adhesive could be used on medical implants, devices and surgical equipment where bacteria can contribute to chronic diseases, resist antibiotic treatment and thereby compromise the body’s defense system. The prevention of aquatic biofouling on ships and bridges is one of the industrial applications.

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

Novel Anti-Adhesive Biomaterial Patches: Preventing Biofilm with Metal Complex Films (MCF) Derived from a Microalgal Polysaccharide by Karina Golberg, Noa Emuna, T. P. Vinod, Dorit van Moppes, Robert S. Marks, Shoshana Malis Arad, and Ariel Kushmaro. Advanced Materials DOI: 10.1002/admi.201500486 Article first published online: 17 MAR 2016

© 2016 WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

This article is behind a paywall.

Study nanomaterial toxicity without testing animals

The process of moving on from testing on animals is laborious as new techniques are pioneered and, perhaps more arduously, people’s opinions and habits are changed. The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) organization focusing the research end of things has announced a means of predicting carbon nanotube toxicity in lungs according to an April 25, 2016 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

A workshop organized last year [2015] by the PETA International Science Consortium Ltd has resulted in an article published today in the journal Particle and Fibre Toxicology (“Aerosol generation and characterization of multi-walled carbon nanotubes [MWCNTs] exposed to cells cultured at the air-liquid interface”). It describes aerosol generation and exposure tools that can be used to predict toxicity in human lungs following inhalation of nanomaterials.

An April 25, 2016 PETA press release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, explains further without much more detail,

Nanomaterials are increasingly being used in consumer products such as paints, construction materials, and food packaging, making human exposure to these materials more likely. One of the common ways humans may be exposed to these substances is by inhalation, therefore, regulatory agencies often require the toxicity of these materials on the lungs to be tested. These tests usually involve confining rats to small tubes the size of their bodies and forcing them to breathe potentially toxic substances before they are killed. However, time, cost, scientific and ethical issues have led scientists to develop methods that do not use animals. The tools described in the new article are used to deposit nanomaterials (or other inhalable substances) onto human lung cells grown in a petri dish.

Co-authors of the Particle and Fibre Toxicology article are scientists from the PETA Science Consortium , The Dow Chemical Company, Baylor University, and the U.S. NTP Interagency Center for the Evaluation of Alternative Toxicological Methods (NICEATM).

“Promoting non-animal methods to assess nanotoxicity has been a focus of the PETA International Science Consortium”, said Dr. Monita Sharma, co-author of the publication and Nanotechnology Specialist at the Consortium, “we organized an international workshop last year on inhalation testing of nanomaterials and this review describes some of the tools that can be used to provide a better understanding of what happens in humans after inhaling these substances.” During the workshop, experts provided recommendations on the design of an in vitro test to assess the toxicity of nanomaterials (especially multi-walled carbon nanotubes) in the lung, including cell types, endpoints, exposure systems, and dosimetry considerations. Additional publications summarizing the outcomes of the workshop are forthcoming.

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

Aerosol generation and characterization of multi-walled carbon nanotubes exposed to cells cultured at the air-liquid interface by William W. Polk, Monita Sharma, Christie M. Sayes, Jon A. Hotchkiss, and Amy J. Clippinger. Particle and Fibre Toxicology201613:20 DOI: 10.1186/s12989-016-0131-y Published: 23 April 2016

This is an open access paper.

A new state for water molecules

ORNL researchers discovered that water in beryl displays some unique and unexpected characteristics. (Photo by Jeff Scovil)

ORNL researchers discovered that water in beryl displays some unique and unexpected characteristics. (Photo by Jeff Scovil)

That striking image from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL; US) depicting a new state for water molecules looks like mixed media: photography and drawing/illustration. Thankfully, an April 22, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily provides a text description,

Neutron scattering and computational modeling have revealed unique and unexpected behavior of water molecules under extreme confinement that is unmatched by any known gas, liquid or solid states.

In a paper published in Physical Review Letters, researchers at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory [ORNL] describe a new tunneling state of water molecules confined in hexagonal ultra-small channels — 5 angstrom across — of the mineral beryl. An angstrom is 1/10-billionth of a meter, and individual atoms are typically about 1 angstrom in diameter.

The discovery, made possible with experiments at ORNL’s Spallation Neutron Source and the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in the United Kingdom, demonstrates features of water under ultra confinement in rocks, soil and cell walls, which scientists predict will be of interest across many disciplines.

An April 22, 2016 ORNL news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, offers more detail,

“At low temperatures, this tunneling water exhibits quantum motion through the separating potential walls, which is forbidden in the classical world,” said lead author Alexander Kolesnikov of ORNL’s Chemical and Engineering Materials Division. “This means that the oxygen and hydrogen atoms of the water molecule are ‘delocalized’ and therefore simultaneously present in all six symmetrically equivalent positions in the channel at the same time. It’s one of those phenomena that only occur in quantum mechanics and has no parallel in our everyday experience.”

The existence of the tunneling state of water shown in ORNL’s study should help scientists better describe the thermodynamic properties and behavior of water in highly confined environments such as water diffusion and transport in the channels of cell membranes, in carbon nanotubes and along grain boundaries and at mineral interfaces in a host of geological environments.

ORNL co-author Lawrence Anovitz noted that the discovery is apt to spark discussions among materials, biological, geological and computational scientists as they attempt to explain the mechanism behind this phenomenon and understand how it applies to their materials.

“This discovery represents a new fundamental understanding of the behavior of water and the way water utilizes energy,” Anovitz said. “It’s also interesting to think that those water molecules in your aquamarine or emerald ring – blue and green varieties of beryl – are undergoing the same quantum tunneling we’ve seen in our experiments.”

While previous studies have observed tunneling of atomic hydrogen in other systems, the ORNL discovery that water exhibits such tunneling behavior is unprecedented. The neutron scattering and computational chemistry experiments showed that, in the tunneling state, the water molecules are delocalized around a ring so the water molecule assumes an unusual double top-like shape.

“The average kinetic energy of the water protons directly obtained from the neutron experiment is a measure of their motion at almost absolute zero temperature and is about 30 percent less than it is in bulk liquid or solid water,” Kolesnikov said. “This is in complete disagreement with accepted models based on the energies of its vibrational modes.”

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

Quantum Tunneling of Water in Beryl: A New State of the Water Molecule by Alexander I. Kolesnikov, George F. Reiter, Narayani Choudhury, Timothy R. Prisk, Eugene Mamontov, Andrey Podlesnyak, George Ehlers, Andrew G. Seel, David J. Wesolowski, and Lawrence M. Anovitz.
Phys. Rev. Lett. 116, 167802 – Published 22 April 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.

How many nanoparticle-based drugs does it take to kill a cancer tumour? More than 1%

According to an April 27, 2016 news item on Nanowerk researchers at the University of Toronto (Canada) along with their collaborators in the US (Harvard Medical School) and Japan (University of Tokyo) have determined that less than 1% of nanoparticle-based drugs reach their intended destination (Note: A link has been removed),

Targeting cancer cells for destruction while leaving healthy cells alone — that has been the promise of the emerging field of cancer nanomedicine. But a new meta-analysis from U of T’s [University of Toronto] Institute of Biomaterials & Biomedical Engineering (IBBME) indicates that progress so far has been limited and new strategies are needed if the promise is to become reality.

“The amount of research into using engineered nanoparticles to deliver cancer drugs directly to tumours has been growing steadily over the last decade, but there are very few formulations used in patients. The question is why?” says Professor Warren Chan (IBBME, ChemE, MSE), senior author on the review paper published in Nature Reviews Materials (“Analysis of nanoparticle delivery to tumours”). “We felt it was time to look at the field more closely.”

An April 25, 2016 U of T news release, which originated the news item, details the research,

Chan and his co-authors analysed 117 published papers that recorded the delivery efficiency of various nanoparticles to tumours — that is, the percentage of injected nanoparticles that actually reach their intended target. To their surprise, they found that the median value was about 0.7 per cent of injected nanoparticles reaching their targets, and that this number has not changed for the last ten years. “If the nanoparticles do not get delivered to the tumour, they cannot work as designed for many nanomedicines,” says Chan.

Even more surprising was that altering nanoparticles themselves made little difference in the net delivery efficiency. “Researchers have tried different materials and nanoparticle sizes, different surface coatings, different shapes, but all these variations lead to no difference, or only small differences,” says Stefan Wilhelm, a post-doctoral researcher in Chan’s lab and lead author of the paper. “These results suggest that we have to think more about the biology and the mechanisms that are involved in the delivery process rather than just changing characteristics of nanoparticles themselves.”

Wilhelm points out that nanoparticles do have some advantages. Unlike chemotherapy drugs which go everywhere in the body, drugs delivered by nanoparticles accumulate more in some organs and less in others. This can be beneficial: for example, one current treatment uses nanoparticles called liposomes to encapsulate the cancer drug doxorubicin.

This encapsulation reduces the accumulation of doxorubicin in the heart, thereby reducing cardiotoxicity compared with administering the drug on its own.

Unfortunately, the majority of injected nanoparticles, including liposomes, end up in the liver, spleen and kidneys, which is logical since the job of these organs is to clear foreign substances and poisons from the blood. This suggests that in order to prevent nanoparticles from being filtered out of the blood before they reach the target tumour, researchers may have to control the interactions of those organs with nanoparticles.

It may be that there is an optimal particle surface chemistry, size, or shape required to access each type of organ or tissue.  One strategy the authors are pursuing involves engineering nanoparticles that can dynamically respond to conditions in the body by altering their surfaces or other properties, much like proteins do in nature. This may help them to avoid being filtered out by organs such as the liver, but at the same time to have the optimal properties needed to enter tumors.

More generally, the authors argue that, in order to increase nanoparticle delivery efficiency, a systematic and coordinated long-term strategy is necessary. To build a strong foundation for the field of cancer nanomedicine, researchers will need to understand a lot more about the interactions between nanoparticles and the body’s various organs than they do today. To this end, Chan’s lab has developed techniques  to visualize these interactions across whole organs using 3D optical microscopy, a study published in ACS Nano this week.

In addition to this, the team has set up an open online database, called the Cancer Nanomedicine Repository that will enable the collection and analysis of data on nanoparticle delivery efficiency from any study, no matter where it is published. The team has already uploaded the data gathered for the latest paper, but when the database goes live in June, researchers from all over the world will be able to add their data and conduct real-time analysis for their particular area of interest.

“It is a big challenge to collect and find ways to summarize data from a decade of research but this article will be immensely useful to researchers in the field,” says Professor Julie Audet (IBBME), a collaborator on the study.

Wilhelm says there is a long way to go in order to improve the clinical translation of cancer nanomedicines, but he’s optimistic about the results. “From the first publication on liposomes in 1965 to when they were first approved for use in treating cancer, it took 30 years,” he says. “In 2016, we already have a lot of data, so there’s a chance that the translation of new cancer nanomedicines for clinical use could go much faster this time. Our meta-analysis provides a ‘reality’ check of the current state of cancer nanomedicine and identifies the specific areas of research that need to be investigated to ensure that there will be a rapid clinical translation of nanomedicine developments.”

I made time to read this paper,

Analysis of nanoparticle delivery to tumours by Stefan Wilhelm, Anthony J. Tavares, Qin Dai, Seiichi Ohta, Julie Audet, Harold F. Dvorak, & Warren C. W. Chan. Nature Reviews Materials 1, Article number: 16014 (2016  doi:10.1038/natrevmats.2016.14 Published online: 26 April 2016

It appears to be open access.

The paper is pretty accessible but it does require that you have some tolerance for your own ignorance (assuming you’re not an expert in this area) and time. If you have both, you will find a good description of the various pathways scientists believe nanoparticles take to enter a tumour. In short, they’re not quite sure how nanoparticles gain entry. As well, there are discussions of other problems associated with the field such as producing enough nanoparticles for general usage.

More than an analysis, there’s also a proposed plan for future action (from Analysis of nanoparticle delivery to tumours ),

UofT_30yrCancerMedicine

Current research in using nanoparticles in vivo has focused on innovative design and demonstration of utility of these nanosystems for imaging and treating cancer. The poor clinical translation has encouraged the researchers in the field to investigate the effect of nanoparticle design (for example, size, shape and surface chemistry) on its function and behaviour in the body in the past 10 years. From a cancer-targeting perspective, we do not believe that nanoparticles will be successfully translated to human use if the current ‘research paradigm’ of nanoparticle targeting continues because the delivery efficiency is too low. We propose a long-term strategy to increase the delivery efficiency and enable nanoparticles to be translated to patient care in a cost-effective manner from the research stage. A foundation for the field will be built by obtaining a detailed view of nanoparticle–organ interaction during nanoparticle transport to the tumour, using computational strategies to organize and simulate the results and the development of new tools to assess nanoparticle delivery. In addition, we propose that these results should be collected in a central database to allow progress in the field to be monitored and correlations to be established. A 30-year strategy was proposed and seemed to be a reasonable time frame because the first liposome system was reported in 1965 (Ref. 122) and the first liposome formulation (Doxil) was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1995 (Refs 91,92). This 30-year time frame may be shortened as a research foundation has already been established but only if the community can parse the immense amount of currently published data. NP, nanoparticle.

Another paper was mentioned in the news release,

Three-Dimensional Optical Mapping of Nanoparticle Distribution in Intact Tissues by Shrey Sindhwani, Abdullah Muhammad Syed, Stefan Wilhelm, Dylan R Glancy, Yih Yang Chen, Michael Dobosz, and Warren C.W. Chan.ACS Nano, Just Accepted Manuscript Publication Date (Web): April 21, 2016 DOI: 10.1021/acsnano.6b01879

Copyright © 2016 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Finally, Melanie Ward in an April 26, 2016 article for Science News Hub has another approach to describing the research. Oddly, she states this,

However, the study warns about the lack of efficiency despite major economic investments (more than one billion dollars in the US in the past decade).

She’s right; the US has spent more than $1B in the last decade. In fact, they’ve allocated over $1B every year to the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) for almost two decades for a total of more than $20B. You might want to apply some caution when reading. BTW, I think that’s a wise approach for everything you read including the blog postings here.

Want better energy storage materials? Add salt

An April 22, 2016 news item on Nanowerk reveals a secret to better energy storage materials,

The secret to making the best energy storage materials is growing them with as much surface area as possible. Like baking, it requires just the right mixture of ingredients prepared in a specific amount and order at just the right temperature to produce a thin sheet of material with the perfect chemical consistency to be useful for storing energy. A team of researchers from Drexel University, Huazhong University of Science and Technology (HUST) and Tsinghua University recently discovered a way to improve the recipe and make the resulting materials bigger and better and soaking up energy — the secret? Just add salt.

An April 22, 2016 Drexel University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail,

The team’s findings, which were recently published in the journal Nature Communications, show that using salt crystals as a template to grow thin sheets of conductive metal oxides make the materials turn out larger and more chemically pure — which makes them better suited for gathering ions and storing energy.

“The challenge of producing a metal oxide that reaches theoretical performance values is that the methods for making it inherently limit its size and often foul its chemical purity, which makes it fall short of predicted energy storage performance,” said Jun Zhou, a professor at HUST’s Wuhan National Laboratory for Optoelectronics and an author of the research. Our research reveals a way to grow stable oxide sheets with less fouling that are on the order of several hundreds of times larger than the ones that are currently being fabricated.”

In an energy storage device — a battery or a capacitor, for example — energy is contained in the chemical transfer of ions from an electrolyte solution to thin layers of conductive materials. As these devices evolve they’re becoming smaller and capable of holding an electric charge for longer periods of time without needing a recharge. The reason for their improvement is that researchers are fabricating materials that are better equipped, structurally and chemically, for collecting and disbursing ions.

In theory, the best materials for the job should be thin sheets of metal oxides, because their chemical structure and high surface area makes it easy for ions to attach — which is how energy storage occurs. But the metal oxide sheets that have been fabricated in labs thus far have fallen well short of their theoretical capabilities.

According to Zhou, Tang [?] and the team from HUST, the problem lies in the process of making the nanosheets — which involves either a deposition from gas or a chemical etching — often leaves trace chemical residues that contaminate the material and prevent ions from bonding to it. In addition, the materials made in this way are often just a few square micrometers in size.

Using salt crystals as a substrate for growing the crystals lets them spread out and form a larger sheet of oxide material. Think of it like making a waffle by dripping batter into a pan versus pouring it into a big waffle iron; the key to getting a big, sturdy product is getting the solution — be it batter, or chemical compound — to spread evenly over the template and stabilize in a uniform way.

“This method of synthesis, called ‘templating’ — where we use a sacrificial material as a substrate for growing a crystal — is used to create a certain shape or structure,” said Yury Gogotsi, PhD, University and Trustee Chair professor in Drexel’s College of Engineering and head of the A.J. Drexel Nanomaterials Institute, who was an author of the paper. “The trick in this work is that the crystal structure of salt must match the crystal structure of the oxide, otherwise it will form an amorphous film of oxide rather than a thing, strong and stable nanocrystal. This is the key finding of our research — it means that different salts must be used to produce different oxides.”

Researchers have used a variety of chemicals, compounds, polymers and objects as growth templates for nanomaterials. But this discovery shows the importance of matching a template to the structure of the material being grown. Salt crystals turn out to be the perfect substrate for growing oxide sheets of magnesium, molybdenum and tungsten.

The precursor solution coats the sides of the salt crystals as the oxides begin to form. After they’ve solidified, the salt is dissolved in a wash, leaving nanometer-thin two-dimensional sheets that formed on the sides of the salt crystal — and little trace of any contaminants that might hinder their energy storage performance. By making oxide nanosheets in this way, the only factors that limit their growth is the size of the salt crystal and the amount of precursor solution used.

“Lateral growth of the 2D oxides was guided by salt crystal geometry and promoted by lattice matching and the thickness was restrained by the raw material supply. The dimensions of the salt crystals are tens of micrometers and guide the growth of the 2D oxide to a similar size,” the researchers write in the paper. “On the basis of the naturally non-layered crystal structures of these oxides, the suitability of salt-assisted templating as a general method for synthesis of 2D oxides has been convincingly demonstrated.”

As predicted, the larger size of the oxide sheets also equated to a greater ability to collect and disburse ions from an electrolyte solution — the ultimate test for its potential to be used in energy storage devices. Results reported in the paper suggest that use of these materials may help in creating an aluminum-ion battery that could store more charge than the best lithium-ion batteries found in laptops and mobile devices today.

Gogotsi, along with his students in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, has been collaborating with Huazhong University of Science and Technology since 2012 to explore a wide variety of materials for energy storage application. The lead author of the Nature Communications article, Xu Xiao, and co-author Tiangi Li, both Zhou’s doctoral students, came to Drexel as exchange students to learn about the University’s supercapacitor research. Those visits started a collaboration, which was supported by Gogotsi’s annual trips to HUST. While the partnership has already yielded five joint publications, Gogotsi speculates that this work is only beginning.

“The most significant result of this work thus far is that we’ve demonstrated the ability to generate high-quality 2D oxides with various compositions,” Gogotsi said. “I can certainly see expanding this approach to other oxides that may offer attractive properties for electrical energy storage, water desalination membranes, photocatalysis and other applications.”

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

Scalable salt-templated synthesis of two-dimensional transition metal oxides by Xu Xiao, Huaibing Song, Shizhe Lin, Ying Zhou, Xiaojun Zhan, Zhimi Hu, Qi Zhang, Jiyu Sun, Bo Yang, Tianqi Li, Liying Jiao, Jun Zhou, Jiang Tang, & Yury Gogotsi. Nature Communications 7, Article number:  11296 doi:10.1038/ncomms11296 Published 22 April 2016

This is an open access paper.

An atom without properties?

There’s rather intriguing Swiss research into atoms and so-called Bell Correlations according to an April 21, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily,

The microscopic world is governed by the rules of quantum mechanics, where the properties of a particle can be completely undetermined and yet strongly correlated with those of other particles. Physicists from the University of Basel have observed these so-called Bell correlations for the first time between hundreds of atoms. Their findings are published in the scientific journal Science.

Everyday objects possess properties independently of each other and regardless of whether we observe them or not. Einstein famously asked whether the moon still exists if no one is there to look at it; we answer with a resounding yes. This apparent certainty does not exist in the realm of small particles. The location, speed or magnetic moment of an atom can be entirely indeterminate and yet still depend greatly on the measurements of other distant atoms.

An April 21, 2016 University of Basel (Switzerland) press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides further explanation,

With the (false) assumption that atoms possess their properties independently of measurements and independently of each other, a so-called Bell inequality can be derived. If it is violated by the results of an experiment, it follows that the properties of the atoms must be interdependent. This is described as Bell correlations between atoms, which also imply that each atom takes on its properties only at the moment of the measurement. Before the measurement, these properties are not only unknown – they do not even exist.

A team of researchers led by professors Nicolas Sangouard and Philipp Treutlein from the University of Basel, along with colleagues from Singapore, have now observed these Bell correlations for the first time in a relatively large system, specifically among 480 atoms in a Bose-Einstein condensate. Earlier experiments showed Bell correlations with a maximum of four light particles or 14 atoms. The results mean that these peculiar quantum effects may also play a role in larger systems.

Large number of interacting particles

In order to observe Bell correlations in systems consisting of many particles, the researchers first had to develop a new method that does not require measuring each particle individually – which would require a level of control beyond what is currently possible. The team succeeded in this task with the help of a Bell inequality that was only recently discovered. The Basel researchers tested their method in the lab with small clouds of ultracold atoms cooled with laser light down to a few billionths of a degree above absolute zero. The atoms in the cloud constantly collide, causing their magnetic moments to become slowly entangled. When this entanglement reaches a certain magnitude, Bell correlations can be detected. Author Roman Schmied explains: “One would expect that random collisions simply cause disorder. Instead, the quantum-mechanical properties become entangled so strongly that they violate classical statistics.”

More specifically, each atom is first brought into a quantum superposition of two states. After the atoms have become entangled through collisions, researchers count how many of the atoms are actually in each of the two states. This division varies randomly between trials. If these variations fall below a certain threshold, it appears as if the atoms have ‘agreed’ on their measurement results; this agreement describes precisely the Bell correlations.

New scientific territory

The work presented, which was funded by the National Centre of Competence in Research Quantum Science and Technology (NCCR QSIT), may open up new possibilities in quantum technology; for example, for generating random numbers or for quantum-secure data transmission. New prospects in basic research open up as well: “Bell correlations in many-particle systems are a largely unexplored field with many open questions – we are entering uncharted territory with our experiments,” says Philipp Treutlein.

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

Bell correlations in a Bose-Einstein condensate by Roman Schmied, Jean-Daniel Bancal, Baptiste Allard, Matteo Fadel, Valerio Scarani, Philipp Treutlein, Nicolas Sangouard. Science  22 Apr 2016: Vol. 352, Issue 6284, pp. 441-444 DOI: 10.1126/science.aad8665

This paper is behind a paywall.

A ‘Candy Crush’ like video game for malaria

Yesterday*, April 25, 2016 was* World Malaria Day and the launch date for a new video game according to an April 25, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily,

Shoot bubbles while helping research against malaria? It is possible with MalariaSpot Bubbles, an online game that launches on April 25, World Malaria Day. Players analyze digitalized images of parasites to differentiate between the five species that cause malaria. They do it while having fun shooting at mosquitoes and bubbles. It is an application to learning through play and to contribute to the research of new diagnosis methods. MalariaSpot Bubbles has been developed by researchers of the Biomedical Imaging Technologies Group at the Technical University of Madrid — International Excellence Campus Moncloa.

An April 25, 2016 Universidad Politécnica de Madrid (Technical University of Madrid) press release, which originated the news item, describes the game and the goal in more detail (Note 1: A link has been removed; Note 2: I believe this text was originally in Spanish and then translated by machine resulting in a few unusual grammatical structures),

MalariaSpot Bubbles is an educational tool to research how young students acquire skills through gaming. During World Malaria Day thousands of students will participate in “Olympic Malaria Videogames” playing MalariaSpot Bubbles, a video game that uses images of digitized blood samples. During this day school teams will compete to become the best virtual hunters of malaria parasites.

“Digital natives around the world spend millions of hours a day playing video games. MalariaSpot Bubbles is an experiment to explore this potential as a new solution to global health problems” says Daniel Cuadrado, MalariaSpot developer and researcher at the Technical University of Madrid.

Diagnosis for everyone by everyone

MalariaSpot Bubbles not only allow players to learn, but also to participate in the research of new tools for collaborative diagnosis online. Malaria is diagnosed by observing a blood smear with a microscope and looking for parasites. Part of the diagnostic protocol is to identify which of the five different species that cause malaria is present in the blood. “This is especially important to provide the proper treatment to the patients”, says María Linares, researcher at Hospital 12 de Octubre and MalariaSpot biomedical specialist. The aim of MalariaSpot Bubbles is to research if remote diagnosis could be performed collectively by non experts, expanding the concept initiated four years ago with the first version of the game MalariaSpot. This project has been recently featured in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet.

Here’s a video introduction to the game,

And, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper in Lancet,

Gamers join real-life fight against malaria and tuberculosis by Leonore Albers. Lancet Volume 16, No. 4, p418, April 2016 DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S1473-3099(16)00136-5

This paper is behind a paywall.

Should you wish to play, the MalariaSpot Bubbles website is here.

*Oops! ‘Today’ changed to ‘Yesterday’ and ‘is’ changed to ‘was’ since today is April 26, 2016.

Artificial intelligence used for wildlife protection

PAWS (Protection Assistant for Wildlife Security), an artificial intelligence (AI) program, has been tested in Uganda and Malaysia. according to an April 22, 2016 US National Science Foundation (NSF) news release (also on EurekAlert but dated April 21, 2016), Note: Links have been removed,

A century ago, more than 60,000 tigers roamed the wild. Today, the worldwide estimate has dwindled to around 3,200. Poaching is one of the main drivers of this precipitous drop. Whether killed for skins, medicine or trophy hunting, humans have pushed tigers to near-extinction. The same applies to other large animal species like elephants and rhinoceros that play unique and crucial roles in the ecosystems where they live.

Human patrols serve as the most direct form of protection of endangered animals, especially in large national parks. However, protection agencies have limited resources for patrols.

With support from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Army Research Office, researchers are using artificial intelligence (AI) and game theory to solve poaching, illegal logging and other problems worldwide, in collaboration with researchers and conservationists in the U.S., Singapore, Netherlands and Malaysia.

“In most parks, ranger patrols are poorly planned, reactive rather than pro-active, and habitual,” according to Fei Fang, a Ph.D. candidate in the computer science department at the University of Southern California (USC).

Fang is part of an NSF-funded team at USC led by Milind Tambe, professor of computer science and industrial and systems engineering and director of the Teamcore Research Group on Agents and Multiagent Systems.

Their research builds on the idea of “green security games” — the application of game theory to wildlife protection. Game theory uses mathematical and computer models of conflict and cooperation between rational decision-makers to predict the behavior of adversaries and plan optimal approaches for containment. The Coast Guard and Transportation Security Administration have used similar methods developed by Tambe and others to protect airports and waterways.

“This research is a step in demonstrating that AI can have a really significant positive impact on society and allow us to assist humanity in solving some of the major challenges we face,” Tambe said.

PAWS puts the claws in anti-poaching

The team presented papers describing how they use their methods to improve the success of human patrols around the world at the AAAI Conference on Artificial Intelligence in February [2016].

The researchers first created an AI-driven application called PAWS (Protection Assistant for Wildlife Security) in 2013 and tested the application in Uganda and Malaysia in 2014. Pilot implementations of PAWS revealed some limitations, but also led to significant improvements.

Here’s a video describing the issues and PAWS,

For those who prefer to read about details rather listen, there’s more from the news release,

PAWS uses data on past patrols and evidence of poaching. As it receives more data, the system “learns” and improves its patrol planning. Already, the system has led to more observations of poacher activities per kilometer.

Its key technical advance lies in its ability to incorporate complex terrain information, including the topography of protected areas. That results in practical patrol routes that minimize elevation changes, saving time and energy. Moreover, the system can also take into account the natural transit paths that have the most animal traffic – and thus the most poaching – creating a “street map” for patrols.

“We need to provide actual patrol routes that can be practically followed,” Fang said. “These routes need to go back to a base camp and the patrols can’t be too long. We list all possible patrol routes and then determine which is most effective.”

The application also randomizes patrols to avoid falling into predictable patterns.

“If the poachers observe that patrols go to some areas more often than others, then the poachers place their snares elsewhere,” Fang said.

Since 2015, two non-governmental organizations, Panthera and Rimbat, have used PAWS to protect forests in Malaysia. The research won the Innovative Applications of Artificial Intelligence award for deployed application, as one of the best AI applications with measurable benefits.

The team recently combined PAWS with a new tool called CAPTURE (Comprehensive Anti-Poaching Tool with Temporal and Observation Uncertainty Reasoning) that predicts attacking probability even more accurately.

In addition to helping patrols find poachers, the tools may assist them with intercepting trafficked wildlife products and other high-risk cargo, adding another layer to wildlife protection. The researchers are in conversations with wildlife authorities in Uganda to deploy the system later this year. They will present their findings at the 15th International Conference on Autonomous Agents and Multiagent Systems (AAMAS 2016) in May.

“There is an urgent need to protect the natural resources and wildlife on our beautiful planet, and we computer scientists can help in various ways,” Fang said. “Our work on PAWS addresses one facet of the problem, improving the efficiency of patrols to combat poaching.”

There is yet another potential use for PAWS, the prevention of illegal logging,

While Fang and her colleagues work to develop effective anti-poaching patrol planning systems, other members of the USC team are developing complementary methods to prevent illegal logging, a major economic and environmental problem for many developing countries.

The World Wildlife Fund estimates trade in illegally harvested timber to be worth between $30 billion and $100 billion annually. The practice also threatens ancient forests and critical habitats for wildlife.

Researchers at USC, the University of Texas at El Paso and Michigan State University recently partnered with the non-profit organization Alliance Vohoary Gasy to limit the illegal logging of rosewood and ebony trees in Madagascar, which has caused a loss of forest cover on the island nation.

Forest protection agencies also face limited budgets and must cover large areas, making sound investments in security resources critical.

The research team worked to determine the balance of security resources in which Madagascar should invest to maximize protection, and to figure out how to best deploy those resources.

Past work in game theory-based security typically involved specified teams — the security workers assigned to airport checkpoints, for example, or the air marshals deployed on flight tours. Finding optimal security solutions for those scenarios is difficult; a solution involving an open-ended team had not previously been feasible.

To solve this problem, the researchers developed a new method called SORT (Simultaneous Optimization of Resource Teams) that they have been experimentally validating using real data from Madagascar.

The research team created maps of the national parks, modeled the costs of all possible security resources using local salaries and budgets, and computed the best combination of resources given these conditions.

“We compared the value of using an optimal team determined by our algorithm versus a randomly chosen team and the algorithm did significantly better,” said Sara Mc Carthy, a Ph.D. student in computer science at USC.

The algorithm is simple and fast, and can be generalized to other national parks with different characteristics. The team is working to deploy it in Madagascar in association with the Alliance Vohoary Gasy.

“I am very proud of what my PhD students Fei Fang and Sara Mc Carthy have accomplished in this research on AI for wildlife security and forest protection,” said Tambe, the team lead. “Interdisciplinary collaboration with practitioners in the field was key in this research and allowed us to improve our research in artificial intelligence.”

Moreover, the project shows other computer science researchers the potential impact of applying their research to the world’s problems.

“This work is not only important because of the direct beneficial impact that it has on the environment, protecting wildlife and forests, but on the way that it can inspire other to dedicate their efforts into making the world a better place,” Mc Carthy said.

The curious can find out more about Panthera here and about Alliance Vohoary Gasy here (be prepared to use your French language skills). Unfortunately, I could not find more information about Rimbat.