Author Archives: Maryse de la Giroday

Panning for silver nanoparticles in your clothes washer

A March 20, 2018 news item on phys.org describes a new approach to treating wastewater (Note: Links have been removed),

Humans have known since ancient times that silver kills or stops the growth of many microorganisms. Hippocrates, the father of medicine, is said to have used silver preparations for treating ulcers and healing wounds. Until the introduction of antibiotics in the 1940s, colloidal silver (tiny particles suspended in a liquid) was a mainstay for treating burns, infected wounds and ulcers. Silver is still used today in wound dressings, in creams and as a coating on medical devices.

Since the 1990s, manufacturers have added silver nanoparticles to numerous consumer products to enhance their antibacterial and anti-odor properties. Examples include clothes, towels, undergarments, socks, toothpaste and soft toys. Nanoparticles are ultra-small particles, ranging from 1 to 100 nanometers in diameter – too small to see even with a microscope. According to a widely cited database, about one-fourth of nanomaterial-based consumer products currently marketed in the United States contain nanosilver.

Multiple studies have reported that nanosilver leaches out of textiles when they are laundered. Research also reveals that nanosilver may be toxic to humans and aquatic and marine organisms. Although it is widely used, little is understood about its fate or long-term toxic effects in the environment.

We are developing ways to convert this potential ecological crisis into an opportunity by recovering pure silver nanoparticles, which have many industrial applications, from laundry wastewater. In a recently published study, we describe a technique for silver recovery and discuss the key technical challenges. Our approach tackles this problem at the source – in this case, individual washing machines. We believe that this strategy has great promise for getting newly identified contaminants out of wastewater.

A March 20, 2018 essay by Sukalyan Sengupta, Professor of Wastewater Treatment, and Tabish Nawaz. Doctoral Student, both at University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth on The Conversation website, which originated the news item, expands on the theme (Note: Links have been removed),

Use of nanosilver in consumer products has steadily risen in the past decade. The market share of silver-based textiles rose from 9 percent in 2004 to 25 percent in 2011.

Several investigators have measured the silver content of textiles and found values ranging from 0.009 to 21,600 milligrams of silver per kilogram of textile. Studies show that the amount of silver leached in the wash solution depends on many factors, including interactions between detergent and other chemicals and how silver is attached to the textiles.

In humans, exposure to silver can harm liver cells, skin and lungs. Prolonged exposure or exposure to a large dose can cause a condition called Argyria, in which the victim’s skin turns permanently bluish-gray.

Once silver goes down the drain and ends up at wastewater treatment plants, it can potentially harm bacterial treatment processes, making them less efficient, and foul treatment equipment. More than 90 percent of silver nanoparticles released in wastewater end up in nutrient-rich biosolids left over at the end of sewage treatment, which often are used on land as agricultural fertilizers.

Silver is toxic in aquatic environments, a concern that’s becoming more serious with the increased use of silver nanoparticles and awareness that oceans, rivers, and lakes are dangerously stressed.

Sengupta and Nawaz go on to describe their proposed solution (Note: Links have been removed),

Our research shows that the most efficient way to remove silver from wastewater is by treating it in the washing machine. At this point silver concentrations are relatively high, and silver is initially released from treated clothing in a chemical form that is feasible to recover.

A bit of chemistry is helpful here. Our recovery method employs a widely used chemistry process called ion exchange. Ions are atoms or molecules that have an electrical charge. In ion exchange, a solid and a liquid are brought together and exchange ions with each other.

For example, household soaps do not lather well in “hard” water, which contains high levels of ions such as magnesium and calcium. Many home water filters use ion exchange to “soften” the water, replacing those materials with other ions that do not affect its properties in the same way.

For this process to work, the ions that switch places must both be either positively or negatively charged. Nanosilver is initially released from textiles as silver ion, which is a cation – an ion with a positive charge (hence the plus sign in its chemical symbol, Ag+).

Even at the source, removing silver from washwater is challenging. Silver concentrations in the wash solution are relatively low compared to other cations, such as calcium, that could interfere with the removal process. Detergent chemistry complicates the picture further because some detergent components can potentially interact with silver.

To recover silver without picking up other chemicals, the recovery process must use materials that have a chemical affinity for silver. In a previous study, we described a potential solution: Using ion-exchange materials embedded with sulfur-based chemicals, which bind preferentially with silver.

In our new study, we passed washwater through an ion-exchange resin column and analyzed how each major detergent ingredient interacted with silver in the water and affected the resin’s ability to remove silver from the water. By manipulating process conditions such as pH, temperature and concentration of nonsilver cations, we were able to identify conditions that maximized silver recovery.

We found that pH and the levels of calcium ions (Ca2+) were critical factors. Higher levels of hydrogen or calcium ions bind up detergent ingredients and prevent them from interacting with silver ions, so the ion-exchange resin can remove the silver from the solution. We also found that some detergent ingredients – particularly bleaching and water-softening agents – made the ion-exchange resin work less efficiently. Depending on these conditions, we recovered between 20 percent and 99 percent of the silver in the washwater.

The researchers go on to propose a new approach to treating wastewater (Note: A link has been removed),

Today wastewater is collected from multiple sources, such as homes and businesses, and piped over long distances to centralized wastewater treatment plants. But increasing evidence shows that these facilities are ill-equipped to keep newly identified contaminants out of the environment, since they use one common treatment scheme for many different waste streams.

We believe the future is in decentralized systems that can treat different types of wastewater with specific technologies designed specifically for the materials they contain. If wastewater from laundromats contains different contaminants than wastewater from restaurants, why treat them the same way?

Interesting, non? In any event, here’s a link to and a citation for what I believe is the researchers’ latest paper on this subject,

Silver Recovery from Laundry Washwater: The Role of Detergent Chemistry by Tabish Nawaz and Sukalyan Sengupta. ACS Sustainable Chem. Eng., 2018, 6 (1), pp 600–608 DOI: 10.1021/acssuschemeng.7b02933 Publication Date (Web): November 21, 2017

Copyright © 2017 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall. For anyone who can’t get access, Karla Lant provides a bit more technical detail about the work in her February 2, 2018 article for fondriest.com.

In-home (one day in the future) eyesight correction

It’s easy to become blasé about ‘futuristic’ developments but every once in a while something comes along that shocks you out of your complacency as this March 8, 2018 news item did for me,

A revolutionary, cutting-edge technology, developed by researchers at Bar-Ilan University’s Institute of Nanotechnology and Advanced Materials (BINA), has the potential to provide a new alternative to eyeglasses, contact lenses, and laser correction for refractive errors.

The technology, known as Nano-Drops, was developed by opthamologist Dr. David Smadja from Shaare Zedek Medical Center, Prof. Zeev Zalevsky from Bar-Ilan’s Kofkin Faculty of Engineering, and Prof. Jean-Paul Moshe Lellouche, head of the Department of Chemistry at Bar-Ilan.

It seems like it would be eye drops, eh? This March 8, 2018 Bar-Ilan University press release, which originated the news item, proceeds to redefine eyedrops,

Nano-Drops achieve their optical effect and correction by locally modifying the corneal refractive index. The magnitude and nature of the optical correction is adjusted by an optical pattern that is stamped onto the superficial layer of the corneal epithelium with a laser source. The shape of the optical pattern can be adjusted for correction of myopia (nearsightedness), hyperopia (farsightedness) or presbyopia (loss of accommodation ability). The laser stamping onto the cornea [emphasis mine] takes a few milliseconds and enables the nanoparticles to enhance and ‘activate’ this optical pattern by locally changing the refractive index and ultimately modifying the trajectory of light passing through the cornea.

The laser stamping source does not relate to the commonly known ‘laser treatment for visual correction’ that ablates corneal tissue. It is rather a small laser device that can connect to a smartphone [emphasis mine] and stamp the optical pattern onto the corneal epithelium by placing numerous adjacent pulses in a very speedy and painless fashion.  Tiny corneal spots created by the laser allow synthetic and biocompatible nanoparticles to enter and locally modify the optical power of the eye [emphasis mine] at the desired correction.

In the future this technology may enable patients to have their vision corrected in the comfort of their own home. [emphasis mine] To accomplish this, they would open an application on their smartphone to measure their vision, connect the laser source device for stamping the optical pattern at the desired correction, and then apply the Nano-Drops to activate the pattern and provide the desired correction.

Upcoming in-vivo experiments in rabbits will allow the researchers to determine how long the effect of the Nano-Drops will last after the initial application. Meanwhile, this promising technology has been shown, through ex-vivo experiments, to efficiently correct nearly 3 diopters of both myopia and presbyopia in pig eyes.

The researchers do not seem to have published a paper about this work. However, there is a March 19, 2018 article by Shoshanna Solomon for the Times of Israel, which provides greater  detail about how you or I would use this technology,

The Israeli researchers came up with a way to reshape the cornea, which accounts for 60 percent of the eye’s optical power. They tried out their system on the eyes of dead pigs, which have an optical system that is very similar to that of humans.

There are three steps to the technology that is now in development.

The first step requires patients to measure their eyesight via their smartphones. There are already a number of apps that do this, said Smadja. The second step requires the patients to use a second app — being developed by the researchers — which would have a laser device clipped onto the smartphone. This device will deliver laser pulses to the eye in less than a second that etch a shallow shape onto the cornea to help correct its refractive error. During the last stage, the Nano-Drops — made up of nontoxic nanoparticles of proteins — are put into the eye and they activate the shape, thus correcting the patients’ vision.

“It’s like when you write something with fuel on the ground and the fuel dries up, and then you throw a flame onto the fuel and the fire takes the shape of the writing,” Smadja explained. “The drops activate the pattern.”

The technology, unlike current laser operations that correct eyesight, does not remove tissue and is thus noninvasive, and it suits most eyes, expanding the scope of patients who can correct their vision, he said.

It’s a good article and, if you have the time, it’s worth reading in its entirety. Of course, it’s a long from ‘being in development’ to ‘available at the store’.

Genetic engineering: an eggplant in Bangladesh and a synthetic biology grant at Concordia University (Canada)

I have two bits of genetic engineering news.

Eggplants in Bangladesh

I always marvel at their beauty,

Bt eggplant is the first genetically engineered food crop to be successfully introduced in South Asia. The crop is helping some of the world’s poorest farmers feed their families and communities while reducing the use of pesticides. Photo by Cornell Alliance for Science.

A July 17, 2018 news item on phys.org describes a genetic engineering application,

Ansar Ali earned just 11,000 taka – about $130 U.S. dollars – from eggplant he grew last year in Bangladesh. This year, after planting Bt eggplant, he brought home more than double that amount, 27,000 taka. It’s a life-changing improvement for a subsistence farmer like Ali.

Bt eggplant, or brinjal as it’s known in Bangladesh, is the first genetically engineered food crop to be successfully introduced in South Asia. Bt brinjal is helping some of the world’s poorest farmers to feed their families and communities, improve profits and dramatically reduce pesticide use. That’s according to Tony Shelton, Cornell professor of entomology and director of the Bt brinjal project funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Shelton and Jahangir Hossain, the country coordinator for the project in Bangladesh, lead the Cornell initiative to get these seeds into the hands of the small-scale, resource-poor farmers who grow a crop consumed daily by millions of Bangladeshis.

A July 11, 2018 Cornell University news release by Krisy Gashler, which originated the news item, expands on the theme (Note: Links have been removed),

Bt brinjal was first developed by the Indian seed company Mahyco in the early 2000s. Scientists inserted a gene from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (thus the name, Bt) into nine brinjal varieties. The plants were engineered to resist the fruit and shoot borer, a devastating insect whose larvae bore into the stem and fruit of an eggplant. The insects cause up to 80 percent crop loss.

The Bt protein produced by the engineered eggplant causes the fruit and shoot borer larva to stop feeding, but is safe for humans consuming the eggplant, as proven through years of biosafety trials. In fact, Bt is commonly used by organic farmers to control caterpillars but has to be sprayed frequently to be effective. The Bt eggplant produces essentially the same protein as in the spray. More than 80 percent of field corn and cotton grown in the U.S. contains a Bt gene for insect control.

“Farmers growing Bt brinjal in Bangladesh are seeing three times the production of other brinjal varieties, at half the production cost, and are getting better prices at the market,” Hossain said.

A recent survey found 50 percent of farmers in Bangladesh said that they experienced illness due to the intense spraying of insecticides. Most farmers work in bare feet and without eye protection, leading to pesticide exposure that causes skin and eye irritation, and vomiting.

“It’s terrible for these farmers’ health and the health of the environment to spray so much,” said Shelton, who found that pesticide use on Bt eggplant was reduced as much as 92 percent in commercial Bt brinjal plantings. “Bt brinjal is a solution that’s really making a difference in people’s lives.”

Alhaz Uddin, a farmer in the Tangail district, made 6,000 taka growing traditional brinjal, but had to spend 4,000 taka on pesticides to combat fruit and shoot borer.

“I sprayed pesticides several times in a week,” he said. “I got sick many times during the spray.”

Mahyco initially wanted to introduce Bt brinjal in India and underwent years of successful safety testing. But in 2010, due to pressure from anti-biotechnology groups, the Indian minister of the environment placed a moratorium on the seeds. It is still in effect today, leaving brinjal farmers there without the effective and safe method of control available to their neighbors in Bangladesh.

Even before the Indian moratorium, Cornell scientists hosted delegations from Bangladesh that wanted to learn about Bt brinjal and the Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project II (ABSP II), a consortium of public and private institutions in Asia and Africa intended to help with the commercial development, regulatory approval and dissemination of bio-engineered crops, including Bt brinjal.

Cornell worked with USAID, Mahyco and the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute to secure regulatory approval, and in 2014 the Bangladeshi government distributed a small number of Bt brinjal plants to 20 farmers in four districts. The next year 108 farmers grew Bt brinjal, and the following year the number of farmers more than doubled to 250. In 2017 the number increased to 6,512 and in 2018 to 27,012. The numbers are likely even higher, according to Shelton, as there are no constraints against farmers saving seeds and replanting.

“Farmers who plant Bt brinjal are required to plant a small perimeter of traditional brinjal around the Bt variety; research has shown that the insects will infest plants in the buffer area, and this will slow their evolutionary development of resistance to the Bt plants,” Shelton said.

In a March 2017 workshop, Bangladeshi Agriculture Minister Begum Matia Chowdhury called Bt brinjal “a success story of local and foreign collaboration.”

“We will be guided by the science-based information, not by the nonscientific whispering of a section of people,” Chowdhury said. “As human beings, it is our moral obligation that all people in our country should get food and not go to bed on an empty stomach. Biotechnology can play an important role in this effect.”

Here’s what an infested eggplant looks like,

Non-Bt eggplant infested with fruit and shoot borer. Photo by Cornell Alliance for Science

It looks more like a fig than an eggplant.

This is part of a more comprehensive project as revealed in a March 29, 2016 Cornell University news release issued on the occasion of a $4.8M, three-year grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID),

… The award supports USAID’s work under Feed the Future, the U.S. government’s global initiative to fight hunger and improve food security using agricultural science and technology.

In the Feed the Future South Asia Eggplant Improvement Partnership, Cornell will protect eggplant farmers from yield losses and improve their livelihoods in partnership with the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI) and the University of the Philippines at Los Baños. Eggplant, or brinjal, is a staple crop that is an important source of income and nutrition for farmers and consumers in South Asia.

Over the past decade, Cornell has led the Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project II (ABSPII), also funded by USAID, that prompted a consortium of institutions in Asia and Africa to use the tools of modern biotechnology, particularly genetic engineering, to improve crops to address major production constraints for which conventional plant breeding tools have not been effective.

In October 2013, Bangladesh became the first country in South Asia to approve commercial cultivation of a genetically engineered food crop. In February 2014, Matia Chowdhury, the Bangladesh minister of agriculture, released four varieties of Bt brinjal to 20 farmers. With the establishment of the 20 Bt brinjal demonstration plots in 2014 and 104 more in 2015, BARI reported a noticeable decrease in fruit and shoot borer infestation, increased yields, decreased use of pesticide and improved income for farmers.

The Feed the Future South Asia Eggplant Improvement Partnership addresses and integrates all elements of the commercialization process — including technology development, regulation, marketing, seed distribution, and product stewardship. It also provides strong platforms for policy development, capacity building, gender equality, outreach and communication.

Moving on from practical applications …

Canada’s synthetic biology training centre

It seems Concordia University (Montréa) is a major Canadian centre for all things ‘synthetic biological’. (from the History and Vision webpage on Concordia University’s Centre for Applied Synthetic Biology webspace),

History and vision

Emerging in 2012 from a collaboration between the Biology and Electrical and Computer Engineering Departments, the Centre received University-wide status in 2016 growing its membership to include Biochemistry, Journalism, Communication Studies, Mechanical, Industrial and Chemical Engineering.


Timeline

T17-36393-VPRG-Timeline-graphic-promo-v4

You can see the timeline does not yet include 2018 development(s). Also it started as “a collaboration between the Biology and Electrical and Computer Engineering Departments?” This suggests a vastly different approach to genetic engineering that that employed in the “eggplant” research. From a July 16, 2018 posting on the Genome Alberta blog,

The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) has committed $1.65 million dollars over six years to establish a research and training program at Concordia’s Centre for Applied Synthetic Biology.

The funds were awarded after Malcolm Whiteway (…), professor of biology and the Canada Research Chair in Microbial Genomics, and the grant application team submitted a proposal to NSERC’s Collaborative Research and Training Experience (CREATE) program.

The Synthetic Biology Applications CREATE program — or SynBioApps — will help students acquire and develop important professional skills that complement their academic education and improve their job-readiness.

‘Concordia is a natural fit’

“As the Canadian leader in synthetic biology and as the home of the country’s only genome foundry, Concordia is a natural fit for a training program in this growing area of research,” says Christophe Guy, vice-president of Research and Graduate Studies.

“In offering a program like SynBioApps, we are providing our students with both a fundamental education in science and the business skills they’ll need to transition into their professional careers.”

The program’s aims are twofold: First, it will teach students how to design and construct cells and proteins for the development of new products related to human health, green technologies, and fundamental biological investigations. Second, it will provide cross-disciplinary training and internship opportunities through the university’s District 3 Innovation Center.

SynBioApps will be open to students from biology, biochemistry, engineering, computing, and mathematics.

“The ability to apply engineering approaches to biological systems promises to revolutionize both biology and industry,” says Whiteway, who is also a member of the Centre for Applied Synthetic Biology.

“The SynBioApps program at Concordia will provide a training program to develop the students who will both investigate the biology and build these industries.”

You can find out more about Concordia’s Centre for Applied Synthetic Biology here (there are jobs listed on their home page) and you can find information about the Synthetic Biology Applications (SynBioApps) training programme here.

The CRISPR ((clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats)-CAS9 gene-editing technique may cause new genetic damage kerfuffle

Setting the stage

Not unexpectedly, CRISPR-Cas9  or clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats-CRISPR-associated protein 9 can be dangerous as these scientists note in a July 16, 2018 news item on phys.org,

Scientists at the Wellcome Sanger Institute have discovered that CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing can cause greater genetic damage in cells than was previously thought. These results create safety implications for gene therapies using CRISPR/Cas9 in the future as the unexpected damage could lead to dangerous changes in some cells.

Reported today (16 July 2018) in the journal Nature Biotechnology, the study also revealed that standard tests for detecting DNA changes miss finding this genetic damage, and that caution and specific testing will be required for any potential gene therapies.

This CRISPR-Cas9 image reminds me of popcorn,

CRISPR-associated protein Cas9 (white) from Staphylococcus aureus based on Protein Database ID 5AXW. Credit: Thomas Splettstoesser (Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 4.0)[ downloaded from https://phys.org/news/2018-07-genome-crisprcas9-gene-higher-thought.html#jCp]

A July 16, 2018 Wellcome Sanger Institute press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, offers a little more explanation,

CRISPR/Cas9 is one of the newest genome editing tools. It can alter sections of DNA in cells by cutting at specific points and introducing changes at that location. Already extensively used in scientific research, CRISPR/Cas9 has also been seen as a promising way to create potential genome editing treatments for diseases such as HIV, cancer or sickle cell disease. Such therapeutics could inactivate a disease-causing gene, or correct a genetic mutation. However, any potential treatments would have to prove that they were safe.

Previous research had not shown many unforeseen mutations from CRISPR/Cas9 in the DNA at the genome editing target site. To investigate this further the researchers carried out a full systematic study in both mouse and human cells and discovered that CRISPR/Cas9 frequently caused extensive mutations, but at a greater distance from the target site.

The researchers found many of the cells had large genetic rearrangements such as DNA deletions and insertions. These could lead to important genes being switched on or off, which could have major implications for CRISPR/Cas9 use in therapies. In addition, some of these changes were too far away from the target site to be seen with standard genotyping methods.

Prof Allan Bradley, corresponding author on the study from the Wellcome Sanger Institute, said: “This is the first systematic assessment of unexpected events resulting from CRISPR/Cas9 editing in therapeutically relevant cells, and we found that changes in the DNA have been seriously underestimated before now. It is important that anyone thinking of using this technology for gene therapy proceeds with caution, and looks very carefully to check for possible harmful effects.”

Michael Kosicki, the first author from the Wellcome Sanger Institute, said: “My initial experiment used CRISPR/Cas9 as a tool to study gene activity, however it became clear that something unexpected was happening. Once we realised the extent of the genetic rearrangements we studied it systematically, looking at different genes and different therapeutically relevant cell lines, and showed that the CRISPR/Cas9 effects held true.”

The work has implications for how CRISPR/Cas9 is used therapeutically and is likely to re-spark researchers’ interest in finding alternatives to the standard CRISPR/Cas9 method for gene editing.

Prof Maria Jasin, an independent researcher from Memorial Slone Kettering Cancer Centre, New York, who was not involved in the study said: “This study is the first to assess the repertoire of genomic damage arising at a CRISPR/Cas9 cleavage site. While it is not known if genomic sites in other cell lines will be affected in the same way, this study shows that further research and specific testing is needed before CRISPR/Cas9 is used clinically.”

For anyone who’d like to better understand the terms gene editing and CRISPR-Cas9, the Wellcome Sanger Institute provides these explanatory webpages, What is genome editing? and What is CRISPR-Cas9?

For the more advanced, here’s a link and a citation for the paper,

Repair of double-strand breaks induced by CRISPR–Cas9 leads to large deletions and complex rearrangements by Michael Kosicki, Kärt Tomberg, & Allan Bradley. Nature Biotechnology DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/nbt.4192 Published 16 July 2018

This paper appears to be open access.

The kerfuffle

It seems this news has affected the CRISPR market. From a July 16, 2018 article by Cale Guthrie Weissman for Fast Company,

… CRISPR could unknowingly delete or alter non-targeted genes, which could lead to myriad unintended consequences. This is especially frightening, since the technology is going to be used in human clinical trials.

Meanwhile, other scientists working with CRISPR are trying to downplay the findings, telling STAT [a life sciences and business journalism website] that there have been no reported adverse effects similar to what the study describes. The news, however, has brought about a market reaction–at least three publicly traded companies that focus on CRISPR-based therapies are in stock nosedive. Crispr Therapeutics is down by over 6%; Editas fell by over 3%; and Intellia Therapeutics dropped by over 5%. [emphasis mine]

Damage control

Gaetan Burgio (geneticist, Australian National University)  in a July 16, 2018 essay on phys.org (originating from The Conversation) suggests some calm (Note: Links have been removed),

But a new study has called into question the precision of the technique [CRISPR gene editing technology].

The hope for gene editing is that it will be able to cure and correct diseases. To date, many successes have been reported, including curing deafness in mice, and in altering cells to cure cancer.

Some 17 clinical trials in human patients are registered [emphasis mine] testing gene editing on leukaemias, brain cancers and sickle cell anaemia (where red blood cells are misshaped, causing them to die). Before implementing CRISPR technology in clinics to treat cancer or congenital disorders, we must address whether the technique is safe and accurate.

There are a few options for getting around this problem. One option is to isolate the cells we wish to edit from the body and reinject only the ones we know have been correctly edited.

For example, lymphocytes (white blood cells) that are crucial to killing cancer cells could be taken out of the body, then modified using CRISPR to heighten their cancer-killing properties. The DNA of these cells could be sequenced in detail, and only the cells accurately and specifically gene-modified would be selected and delivered back into the body to kill the cancer cells.

While this strategy is valid for cells we can isolate from the body, some cells, such as neurons and muscles, cannot be removed from the body. These types of cells might not be suitable for gene editing using Cas9 scissors.

Fortunately, researchers have discovered other forms of CRISPR systems that don’t require the DNA to be cut. Some CRISPR systems only cut the RNA, not the DNA (DNA contains genetic instructions, RNA convey the instructions on how to synthesise proteins).

As RNA [ribonucleic acid] remains in our cells only for a specific period of time before being degraded, this would allow us to control the timing and duration of the CRISPR system delivery and reverse it (so the scissors are only functional for a short period of time).

This was found to be successful for dementia in mice. Similarly, some CRISPR systems simply change the letters of the DNA, rather than cutting them. This was successful for specific mutations causing diseases such as hereditary deafness in mice.

I agree with Burgio’s conclusion (not included here) that we have a lot more to learn and I can’t help wondering why there are 17 registered human clinical trials at this point.

My name is Steve and I’m a sub auroral ion drift

Photo: The Aurora Named STEVE Couresty: NASA Goddard

That stunning image is one of a series, many of which were taken by amateur photographers as noted in a March 14, 2018 US National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA)/Goddard Space Flight Center news release (also on EurekAlert) by Kasha Patel about how STEVE was discovered,

Notanee Bourassa knew that what he was seeing in the night sky was not normal. Bourassa, an IT technician in Regina, Canada, trekked outside of his home on July 25, 2016, around midnight with his two younger children to show them a beautiful moving light display in the sky — an aurora borealis. He often sky gazes until the early hours of the morning to photograph the aurora with his Nikon camera, but this was his first expedition with his children. When a thin purple ribbon of light appeared and starting glowing, Bourassa immediately snapped pictures until the light particles disappeared 20 minutes later. Having watched the northern lights for almost 30 years since he was a teenager, he knew this wasn’t an aurora. It was something else.

From 2015 to 2016, citizen scientists — people like Bourassa who are excited about a science field but don’t necessarily have a formal educational background — shared 30 reports of these mysterious lights in online forums and with a team of scientists that run a project called Aurorasaurus. The citizen science project, funded by NASA and the National Science Foundation, tracks the aurora borealis through user-submitted reports and tweets.

The Aurorasaurus team, led by Liz MacDonald, a space scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, conferred to determine the identity of this mysterious phenomenon. MacDonald and her colleague Eric Donovan at the University of Calgary in Canada talked with the main contributors of these images, amateur photographers in a Facebook group called Alberta Aurora Chasers, which included Bourassa and lead administrator Chris Ratzlaff. Ratzlaff gave the phenomenon a fun, new name, Steve, and it stuck.

But people still didn’t know what it was.

Scientists’ understanding of Steve changed that night Bourassa snapped his pictures. Bourassa wasn’t the only one observing Steve. Ground-based cameras called all-sky cameras, run by the University of Calgary and University of California, Berkeley, took pictures of large areas of the sky and captured Steve and the auroral display far to the north. From space, ESA’s (the European Space Agency) Swarm satellite just happened to be passing over the exact area at the same time and documented Steve.

For the first time, scientists had ground and satellite views of Steve. Scientists have now learned, despite its ordinary name, that Steve may be an extraordinary puzzle piece in painting a better picture of how Earth’s magnetic fields function and interact with charged particles in space. The findings are published in a study released today in Science Advances.

“This is a light display that we can observe over thousands of kilometers from the ground,” said MacDonald. “It corresponds to something happening way out in space. Gathering more data points on STEVE will help us understand more about its behavior and its influence on space weather.”

The study highlights one key quality of Steve: Steve is not a normal aurora. Auroras occur globally in an oval shape, last hours and appear primarily in greens, blues and reds. Citizen science reports showed Steve is purple with a green picket fence structure that waves. It is a line with a beginning and end. People have observed Steve for 20 minutes to 1 hour before it disappears.

If anything, auroras and Steve are different flavors of an ice cream, said MacDonald. They are both created in generally the same way: Charged particles from the Sun interact with Earth’s magnetic field lines.

The uniqueness of Steve is in the details. While Steve goes through the same large-scale creation process as an aurora, it travels along different magnetic field lines than the aurora. All-sky cameras showed that Steve appears at much lower latitudes. That means the charged particles that create Steve connect to magnetic field lines that are closer to Earth’s equator, hence why Steve is often seen in southern Canada.

Perhaps the biggest surprise about Steve appeared in the satellite data. The data showed that Steve comprises a fast moving stream of extremely hot particles called a sub auroral ion drift, or SAID. Scientists have studied SAIDs since the 1970s but never knew there was an accompanying visual effect. The Swarm satellite recorded information on the charged particles’ speeds and temperatures, but does not have an imager aboard.

“People have studied a lot of SAIDs, but we never knew it had a visible light. Now our cameras are sensitive enough to pick it up and people’s eyes and intellect were critical in noticing its importance,” said Donovan, a co-author of the study. Donovan led the all-sky camera network and his Calgary colleagues lead the electric field instruments on the Swarm satellite.

Steve is an important discovery because of its location in the sub auroral zone, an area of lower latitude than where most auroras appear that is not well researched. For one, with this discovery, scientists now know there are unknown chemical processes taking place in the sub auroral zone that can lead to this light emission.

Second, Steve consistently appears in the presence of auroras, which usually occur at a higher latitude area called the auroral zone. That means there is something happening in near-Earth space that leads to both an aurora and Steve. Steve might be the only visual clue that exists to show a chemical or physical connection between the higher latitude auroral zone and lower latitude sub auroral zone, said MacDonald.

“Steve can help us understand how the chemical and physical processes in Earth’s upper atmosphere can sometimes have local noticeable effects in lower parts of Earth’s atmosphere,” said MacDonald. “This provides good insight on how Earth’s system works as a whole.”

The team can learn a lot about Steve with additional ground and satellite reports, but recording Steve from the ground and space simultaneously is a rare occurrence. Each Swarm satellite orbits Earth every 90 minutes and Steve only lasts up to an hour in a specific area. If the satellite misses Steve as it circles Earth, Steve will probably be gone by the time that same satellite crosses the spot again.

In the end, capturing Steve becomes a game of perseverance and probability.

“It is my hope that with our timely reporting of sightings, researchers can study the data so we can together unravel the mystery of Steve’s origin, creation, physics and sporadic nature,” said Bourassa. “This is exciting because the more I learn about it, the more questions I have.”

As for the name “Steve” given by the citizen scientists? The team is keeping it as an homage to its initial name and discoverers. But now it is STEVE, short for Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement.

Other collaborators on this work are: the University of Calgary, New Mexico Consortium, Boston University, Lancaster University, Athabasca University, Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Alberta Aurora Chasers Facebook group.

If you live in an area where you may see STEVE or an aurora, submit your pictures and reports to Aurorasaurus through aurorasaurus.org or the free iOS and Android mobile apps. To learn how to spot STEVE, click here.

There is a video with MacDonald describing the work and featuring more images,

Katherine Kornei’s March 14, 2018 article for sciencemag.org adds more detail about the work,

Citizen scientists first began posting about Steve on social media several years ago. Across New Zealand, Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom, they reported an unusual sight in the night sky: a purplish line that arced across the heavens for about an hour at a time, visible at lower latitudes than classical aurorae, mostly in the spring and fall. … “It’s similar to a contrail but doesn’t disperse,” says Notanee Bourassa, an aurora photographer in Saskatchewan province in Canada [Regina as mentioned in the news release is the capital of the province of Saskatchewan].

Traditional aurorae are often green, because oxygen atoms present in Earth’s atmosphere emit that color light when they’re bombarded by charged particles trapped in Earth’s magnetic field. They also appear as a diffuse glow—rather than a distinct line—on the northern or southern horizon. Without a scientific theory to explain the new sight, a group of citizen scientists led by aurora enthusiast Chris Ratzlaff of Canada’s Alberta province [usually referred to as Canada’s province of Alberta or simply, the province of Alberta] playfully dubbed it Steve, after a line in the 2006 children’s movie Over the Hedge.

Aurorae have been studied for decades, but people may have missed Steve because their cameras weren’t sensitive enough, says Elizabeth MacDonald, a space physicist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and leader of the new research. MacDonald and her team have used data from a European satellite called Swarm-A to study Steve in its native environment, about 200 kilometers up in the atmosphere. Swarm-A’s instruments revealed that the charged particles in Steve had a temperature of about 6000°C, “impressively hot” compared with the nearby atmosphere, MacDonald says. And those ions were flowing from east to west at nearly 6 kilometers per second, …

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

New science in plain sight: Citizen scientists lead to the discovery of optical structure in the upper atmosphere by Elizabeth A. MacDonald, Eric Donovan, Yukitoshi Nishimura, Nathan A. Case, D. Megan Gillies, Bea Gallardo-Lacourt, William E. Archer, Emma L. Spanswick, Notanee Bourassa, Martin Connors, Matthew Heavner, Brian Jackel, Burcu Kosar, David J. Knudsen, Chris Ratzlaff, and Ian Schofield. Science Advances 14 Mar 2018:
Vol. 4, no. 3, eaaq0030 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aaq0030

This paper is open access. You’ll note that Notanee Bourassa is listed as an author. For more about Bourassa, there’s his Twitter feed (@DJHardwired) and his YouTube Channel. BTW, his Twitter bio notes that he’s “Recently heartbroken,” as well as, “Seasoned human male. Expert storm chaser, aurora photographer, drone flyer and on-air FM radio DJ.” Make of that what you will.

Graphene flakes bring spintronics a step closer?

Italian researchers are hoping that graphene flakes will be instrumental in the development of spintronics according to a March 14, 2018 news item on phys.org,

Graphene nanoflakes are promising for possible applications in the field of nanoelectronics, and the subject of a study recently published in Nano Letters. These hexagonal nanostructures exhibit quantum effects for modulating current flow. Thanks to their intrinsic magnetic properties, they could also represent a significant step forward in the field of spintronics. The study, conducted via computer analysis and simulations, was led by Massimo Capone.

A March 14, 2018 Scuola Internazionale Superiore di Studi Avanzati (SISSA) press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

“We have been able to observe two key phenomena by analysing the properties of graphene nanoflakes. Both are of great interest for possible future applications” explain Angelo Valli and Massimo Capone, authors of the study together with Adriano Amaricci and Valentina Brosco. The first phenomenon deals with the so-called interference between electrons and is a quantum phenomenon: «In nanoflakes, the electrons interfere with each other in a “destructive” manner if we measure the current in a certain configuration. This means that there is no transmission of current. This is a typically quantum phenomenon, which only occurs at very reduced sizes. By studying the graphene flakes we have understood that it is possible to bring this phenomenon to larger systems, therefore into the nano world and on a scale in which it is observable and can be exploited for possible uses in nanoelectronics». The two researchers explain that in what are called “Quantum interference transistors” destructive interference would be the “OFF” status. For the “ON” status, they say it is sufficient to remove the conditions for interference, thereby enabling the current to flow.

Magnetism and spintronics

But there’s more. In the study, the researchers demonstrated that the nanoflakes present new magnetic properties which are absent, for example, in an entire sheet of graphene: «The magnetism emerges spontaneously at their edges, without any external intervention. This enables the creation of a spin current». The union between the phenomena of quantum interference and of magnetism would allow to obtain almost complete spin polarization, with a huge potential in the field of spintronics, explain the researchers. These properties could be used, for example, in the memorising and processing information technologies, interpreting the spin as binary code. The electron spin, being quantised and having only two possible configurations (which we could call “up” and “down”), is very well suited for this kind of implementation.

Next step: the experimental test

To improve the efficiency of the possible device and the percentage of current polarization the researchers have also developed a protocol that envisages the interaction of the graphene flakes with a surface made of nitrogen and boron. «The results obtained are really interesting. This evidence now awaits the experimental test, to confirm what we have theoretically predicted» concludes Massimo Capone, head of the research and recently awarded the title of Outstanding Referee by the American Physical Society journal; in this way, each year, the journal indicates the male and female scientists who have distinguished themselves for their expertise in collaborating with the journal.

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

Quantum Interference Assisted Spin Filtering in Graphene Nanoflakes by Angelo Valli, Adriano Amaricci, Valentina Brosco, and Massimo Capone. Nano Lett., 2018, 18 (3), pp 2158–2164 DOI: 10.1021/acs.nanolett.8b00453 Publication Date (Web): February 23, 2018

Copyright © 2018 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Body-on-a-chip (10 organs)

Also known as human-on-a-chip, the 10-organ body-on-a-chip was being discussed at the 9th World Congress on Alternatives to Animal Testing in the Life Sciences in 2014 in Prague, Czech Republic (see this July 1, 2015 posting for more). At the time, scientists were predicting success at achieving their goal of 10 organs on-a-chip in 2017 (the best at the time was four organs). Only a few months past that deadline, scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) seem to have announced a ’10 organ chip’ in a March 14, 2018 news item on ScienceDaily,

MIT engineers have developed new technology that could be used to evaluate new drugs and detect possible side effects before the drugs are tested in humans. Using a microfluidic platform that connects engineered tissues from up to 10 organs, the researchers can accurately replicate human organ interactions for weeks at a time, allowing them to measure the effects of drugs on different parts of the body.

Such a system could reveal, for example, whether a drug that is intended to treat one organ will have adverse effects on another.

A March 14, 2018 MIT news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

“Some of these effects are really hard to predict from animal models because the situations that lead to them are idiosyncratic,” says Linda Griffith, the School of Engineering Professor of Teaching Innovation, a professor of biological engineering and mechanical engineering, and one of the senior authors of the study. “With our chip, you can distribute a drug and then look for the effects on other tissues, and measure the exposure and how it is metabolized.”

These chips could also be used to evaluate antibody drugs and other immunotherapies, which are difficult to test thoroughly in animals because they are designed to interact with the human immune system.

David Trumper, an MIT professor of mechanical engineering, and Murat Cirit, a research scientist in the Department of Biological Engineering, are also senior authors of the paper, which appears in the journal Scientific Reports. The paper’s lead authors are former MIT postdocs Collin Edington and Wen Li Kelly Chen.

Modeling organs

When developing a new drug, researchers identify drug targets based on what they know about the biology of the disease, and then create compounds that affect those targets. Preclinical testing in animals can offer information about a drug’s safety and effectiveness before human testing begins, but those tests may not reveal potential side effects, Griffith says. Furthermore, drugs that work in animals often fail in human trials.

“Animals do not represent people in all the facets that you need to develop drugs and understand disease,” Griffith says. “That is becoming more and more apparent as we look across all kinds of drugs.”

Complications can also arise due to variability among individual patients, including their genetic background, environmental influences, lifestyles, and other drugs they may be taking. “A lot of the time you don’t see problems with a drug, particularly something that might be widely prescribed, until it goes on the market,” Griffith says.

As part of a project spearheaded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Griffith and her colleagues decided to pursue a technology that they call a “physiome on a chip,” which they believe could offer a way to model potential drug effects more accurately and rapidly. To achieve this, the researchers needed new equipment — a platform that would allow tissues to grow and interact with each other — as well as engineered tissue that would accurately mimic the functions of human organs.

Before this project was launched, no one had succeeded in connecting more than a few different tissue types on a platform. Furthermore, most researchers working on this kind of chip were working with closed microfluidic systems, which allow fluid to flow in and out but do not offer an easy way to manipulate what is happening inside the chip. These systems also require external pumps.

The MIT team decided to create an open system, which essentially removes the lid and makes it easier to manipulate the system and remove samples for analysis. Their system, adapted from technology they previously developed and commercialized through U.K.-based CN BioInnovations, also incorporates several on-board pumps that can control the flow of liquid between the “organs,” replicating the circulation of blood, immune cells, and proteins through the human body. The pumps also allow larger engineered tissues, for example tumors within an organ, to be evaluated.

Complex interactions

The researchers created several versions of their chip, linking up to 10 organ types: liver, lung, gut, endometrium, brain, heart, pancreas, kidney, skin, and skeletal muscle. Each “organ” consists of clusters of 1 million to 2 million cells. These tissues don’t replicate the entire organ, but they do perform many of its important functions. Significantly, most of the tissues come directly from patient samples rather than from cell lines that have been developed for lab use. These so-called “primary cells” are more difficult to work with but offer a more representative model of organ function, Griffith says.

Using this system, the researchers showed that they could deliver a drug to the gastrointestinal tissue, mimicking oral ingestion of a drug, and then observe as the drug was transported to other tissues and metabolized. They could measure where the drugs went, the effects of the drugs on different tissues, and how the drugs were broken down. In a related publication, the researchers modeled how drugs can cause unexpected stress on the liver by making the gastrointestinal tract “leaky,” allowing bacteria to enter the bloodstream and produce inflammation in the liver.

Kevin Healy, a professor of bioengineering and materials science and engineering at the University of California at Berkeley, says that this kind of system holds great potential for accurate prediction of complex adverse drug reactions.

“While microphysiological systems (MPS) featuring single organs can be of great use for both pharmaceutical testing and basic organ-level studies, the huge potential of MPS technology is revealed by connecting multiple organ chips in an integrated system for in vitro pharmacology. This study beautifully illustrates that multi-MPS “physiome-on-a-chip” approaches, which combine the genetic background of human cells with physiologically relevant tissue-to-media volumes, allow accurate prediction of drug pharmacokinetics and drug absorption, distribution, metabolism, and excretion,” says Healy, who was not involved in the research.

Griffith believes that the most immediate applications for this technology involve modeling two to four organs. Her lab is now developing a model system for Parkinson’s disease that includes brain, liver, and gastrointestinal tissue, which she plans to use to investigate the hypothesis that bacteria found in the gut can influence the development of Parkinson’s disease.

Other applications include modeling tumors that metastasize to other parts of the body, she says.

“An advantage of our platform is that we can scale it up or down and accommodate a lot of different configurations,” Griffith says. “I think the field is going to go through a transition where we start to get more information out of a three-organ or four-organ system, and it will start to become cost-competitive because the information you’re getting is so much more valuable.”

The research was funded by the U.S. Army Research Office and DARPA.

Caption: MIT engineers have developed new technology that could be used to evaluate new drugs and detect possible side effects before the drugs are tested in humans. Using a microfluidic platform that connects engineered tissues from up to 10 organs, the researchers can accurately replicate human organ interactions for weeks at a time, allowing them to measure the effects of drugs on different parts of the body. Credit: Felice Frankel

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

Interconnected Microphysiological Systems for Quantitative Biology and Pharmacology Studies by Collin D. Edington, Wen Li Kelly Chen, Emily Geishecker, Timothy Kassis, Luis R. Soenksen, Brij M. Bhushan, Duncan Freake, Jared Kirschner, Christian Maass, Nikolaos Tsamandouras, Jorge Valdez, Christi D. Cook, Tom Parent, Stephen Snyder, Jiajie Yu, Emily Suter, Michael Shockley, Jason Velazquez, Jeremy J. Velazquez, Linda Stockdale, Julia P. Papps, Iris Lee, Nicholas Vann, Mario Gamboa, Matthew E. LaBarge, Zhe Zhong, Xin Wang, Laurie A. Boyer, Douglas A. Lauffenburger, Rebecca L. Carrier, Catherine Communal, Steven R. Tannenbaum, Cynthia L. Stokes, David J. Hughes, Gaurav Rohatgi, David L. Trumper, Murat Cirit, Linda G. Griffith. Scientific Reports, 2018; 8 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41598-018-22749-0 Published online:

This paper which describes testing for four-, seven-, and ten-organs-on-a-chip, is open access. From the paper’s Discussion,

In summary, we have demonstrated a generalizable approach to linking MPSs [microphysiological systems] within a fluidic platform to create a physiome-on-a-chip approach capable of generating complex molecular distribution profiles for advanced drug discovery applications. This adaptable, reusable system has unique and complementary advantages to existing microfluidic and PDMS-based approaches, especially for applications involving high logD substances (drugs and hormones), those requiring precise and flexible control over inter-MPS flow partitioning and drug distribution, and those requiring long-term (weeks) culture with reliable fluidic and sampling operation. We anticipate this platform can be applied to a wide range of problems in disease modeling and pre-clinical drug development, especially for tractable lower-order (2–4) interactions.

Congratulations to the researchers!

US National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH) released four new documents for handling nanomaterials

A March 12, 2018 news item on Nanowerk announced the latest from the US National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH) on the safe handling of nanomaterials in the workplace,

Realizing the promise of any scientific advancement requires understanding of its potential human health effects, and its safe and responsible development, even at the level of engineered nanomaterials, which can be nearly atomic-sized. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) launched four new products this week intended to provide options to companies for controlling possible exposure of their workers to nanomaterials on the job.

A March 12, 2018 NIOSH news release, which originated the news item, fills in some details,

Engineered nanomaterials are intentionally produced to have at least one primary dimension less than 100 nanometers (nm). These very small particles have unique shapes and physical and chemical properties. These materials become desirable for specific product applications in areas including medicine, electronics, biomaterials, and consumer products. Workers in industries that use or make these uniquely engineered nanomaterials may inhale nanoparticles on a daily basis, posing a potential respiratory hazard.

“Researching, developing, and utilizing these nano properties is at the heart of new technology, just as worker safety is at the heart of what we do at NIOSH,” said NIOSH Director John Howard, M.D. “The information contained in these new workplace design solution documents provide employers with strategic steps towards making sure their employees stay safe while handling nanomaterials.”

The four new documents provide helpful recommendations on minimizing exposures during common processes and tasks, including:

Each workplace design solutions document provides key tips on the design, use, and maintenance of exposure controls for nanomaterial production, post processing, and use. The poster poses questions that employers and workers should consider before starting work with a nanomaterial. For each question, the poster provides options to reduce exposures to nanomaterials based on the physical form. The poster can be displayed in a lab or work environment, making it an easily accessible reminder of the important health and safety considerations for working with nanomaterials.

To access the products, and for more information about nanotechnology research at NIOSH, please visit https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/nanotech/pubs.html

NIOSH is the federal institute that conducts research and makes recommendations for preventing work-related injuries and illnesses. More information about NIOSH can be found at www.cdc.gov/niosh.

That’s all folks!

‘Lilliputian’ skyscraper: white graphene for hydrogen storage

This story comes from Rice University (Texas, US). From a March 12, 2018 news item on Nanowerk,

Rice University engineers have zeroed in on the optimal architecture for storing hydrogen in “white graphene” nanomaterials — a design like a Lilliputian skyscraper with “floors” of boron nitride sitting one atop another and held precisely 5.2 angstroms apart by boron nitride pillars.

Caption Thousands of hours of calculations on Rice University’s two fastest supercomputers found that the optimal architecture for packing hydrogen into “white graphene” involves making skyscraper-like frameworks of vertical columns and one-dimensional floors that are about 5.2 angstroms apart. In this illustration, hydrogen molecules (white) sit between sheet-like floors of graphene (gray) that are supported by boron-nitride pillars (pink and blue). Researchers found that identical structures made wholly of boron-nitride had unprecedented capacity for storing readily available hydrogen. Credit Lei Tao/Rice University

A March 12, 2018 Rice University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, goes into extensive detail about the work,

“The motivation is to create an efficient material that can take up and hold a lot of hydrogen — both by volume and weight — and that can quickly and easily release that hydrogen when it’s needed,”  [emphasis mine] said the study’s lead author, Rouzbeh Shahsavari, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice.

Hydrogen is the lightest and most abundant element in the universe, and its energy-to-mass ratio — the amount of available energy per pound of raw material, for example — far exceeds that of fossil fuels. It’s also the cleanest way to generate electricity: The only byproduct is water. A 2017 report by market analysts at BCC Research found that global demand for hydrogen storage materials and technologies will likely reach $5.4 billion annually by 2021.

Hydrogen’s primary drawbacks relate to portability, storage and safety. While large volumes can be stored under high pressure in underground salt domes and specially designed tanks, small-scale portable tanks — the equivalent of an automobile gas tank — have so far eluded engineers.

Following months of calculations on two of Rice’s fastest supercomputers, Shahsavari and Rice graduate student Shuo Zhao found the optimal architecture for storing hydrogen in boron nitride. One form of the material, hexagonal boron nitride (hBN), consists of atom-thick sheets of boron and nitrogen and is sometimes called white graphene because the atoms are spaced exactly like carbon atoms in flat sheets of graphene.

Previous work in Shahsavari’s Multiscale Materials Lab found that hybrid materials of graphene and boron nitride could hold enough hydrogen to meet the Department of Energy’s storage targets for light-duty fuel cell vehicles.

“The choice of material is important,” he said. “Boron nitride has been shown to be better in terms of hydrogen absorption than pure graphene, carbon nanotubes or hybrids of graphene and boron nitride.

“But the spacing and arrangement of hBN sheets and pillars is also critical,” he said. “So we decided to perform an exhaustive search of all the possible geometries of hBN to see which worked best. We also expanded the calculations to include various temperatures, pressures and dopants, trace elements that can be added to the boron nitride to enhance its hydrogen storage capacity.”

Zhao and Shahsavari set up numerous “ab initio” tests, computer simulations that used first principles of physics. Shahsavari said the approach was computationally intense but worth the extra effort because it offered the most precision.

“We conducted nearly 4,000 ab initio calculations to try and find that sweet spot where the material and geometry go hand in hand and really work together to optimize hydrogen storage,” he said.

Unlike materials that store hydrogen through chemical bonding, Shahsavari said boron nitride is a sorbent that holds hydrogen through physical bonds, which are weaker than chemical bonds. That’s an advantage when it comes to getting hydrogen out of storage because sorbent materials tend to discharge more easily than their chemical cousins, Shahsavari said.

He said the choice of boron nitride sheets or tubes and the corresponding spacing between them in the superstructure were the key to maximizing capacity.

“Without pillars, the sheets sit naturally one atop the other about 3 angstroms apart, and very few hydrogen atoms can penetrate that space,” he said. “When the distance grew to 6 angstroms or more, the capacity also fell off. At 5.2 angstroms, there is a cooperative attraction from both the ceiling and floor, and the hydrogen tends to clump in the middle. Conversely, models made of purely BN tubes — not sheets — had less storage capacity.”

Shahsavari said models showed that the pure hBN tube-sheet structures could hold 8 weight percent of hydrogen. (Weight percent is a measure of concentration, similar to parts per million.) Physical experiments are needed to verify that capacity, but that the DOE’s ultimate target is 7.5 weight percent, and Shahsavari’s models suggests even more hydrogen can be stored in his structure if trace amounts of lithium are added to the hBN.

Finally, Shahsavari said, irregularities in the flat, floor-like sheets of the structure could also prove useful for engineers.

“Wrinkles form naturally in the sheets of pillared boron nitride because of the nature of the junctions between the columns and floors,” he said. “In fact, this could also be advantageous because the wrinkles can provide toughness. If the material is placed under load or impact, that buckled shape can unbuckle easily without breaking. This could add to the material’s safety, which is a big concern in hydrogen storage devices.

“Furthermore, the high thermal conductivity and flexibility of BN may provide additional opportunities to control the adsorption and release kinetics on-demand,” Shahsavari said. “For example, it may be possible to control release kinetics by applying an external voltage, heat or an electric field.”

I may be wrong but this “The motivation is to create an efficient material that can take up and hold a lot of hydrogen — both by volume and weight — and that can quickly and easily release that hydrogen when it’s needed, …”  sounds like a supercapacitor. One other comment, this research appears to be ‘in silico’, i.e., all the testing has been done as computer simulations and the proposed materials themselves have yet to be tested.

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

Merger of Energetic Affinity and Optimal Geometry Provides New Class of Boron Nitride Based Sorbents with Unprecedented Hydrogen Storage Capacity by Rouzbeh Shahsavari and Shuo Zhao. Small Vol. 14 Issue 10 DOI: 10.1002/smll.201702863 Version of Record online: 8 MAR 2018

© 2018 WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

This paper is behind a paywall.

Flat gallium (gallenene) and nanoelectronics

Another day, another 2D material. A March 9, 2018 news item on ScienceDaily announced the latest thin material from Rice university,

Scientists at Rice University and the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, have discovered a method to make atomically flat gallium that shows promise for nanoscale electronics.

The Rice lab of materials scientist Pulickel Ajayan and colleagues in India created two-dimensional gallenene, a thin film of conductive material that is to gallium what graphene is to carbon.

Extracted into a two-dimensional form, the novel material appears to have an affinity for binding with semiconductors like silicon and could make an efficient metal contact in two-dimensional electronic devices, the researchers said.

A March 9, 2018 Rice University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the process for creating gallenene,

Gallium is a metal with a low melting point; unlike graphene and many other 2-D structures, it cannot yet be grown with vapor phase deposition methods. Moreover, gallium also has a tendency to oxidize quickly. And while early samples of graphene were removed from graphite with adhesive tape, the bonds between gallium layers are too strong for such a simple approach.

So the Rice team led by co-authors Vidya Kochat, a former postdoctoral researcher at Rice, and Atanu Samanta, a student at the Indian Institute of Science, used heat instead of force.

Rather than a bottom-up approach, the researchers worked their way down from bulk gallium by heating it to 29.7 degrees Celsius (about 85 degrees Fahrenheit), just below the element’s melting point. That was enough to drip gallium onto a glass slide. As a drop cooled just a bit, the researchers pressed a flat piece of silicon dioxide on top to lift just a few flat layers of gallenene.

They successfully exfoliated gallenene onto other substrates, including gallium nitride, gallium arsenide, silicone and nickel. That allowed them to confirm that particular gallenene-substrate combinations have different electronic properties and to suggest that these properties can be tuned for applications.

“The current work utilizes the weak interfaces of solids and liquids to separate thin 2-D sheets of gallium,” said Chandra Sekhar Tiwary, principal investigator on the project he completed at Rice before becoming an assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Technology in Gandhinagar, India. “The same method can be explored for other metals and compounds with low melting points.”

Gallenene’s plasmonic and other properties are being investigated, according to Ajayan. “Near 2-D metals are difficult to extract, since these are mostly high-strength, nonlayered structures, so gallenene is an exception that could bridge the need for metals in the 2-D world,” he said.

Co-authors of the paper are graduate student Yuan Zhang and Associate Research Professor Robert Vajtai of Rice; Anthony Stender, a former Rice postdoctoral researcher and now an assistant professor at Ohio University; Sanjit Bhowmick, Praveena Manimunda and Syed Asif of Bruker Nano Surfaces, Minneapolis; and Rice alumnus Abhishek Singh of the Indian Institute of Science. Ajayan is chair of Rice’s Department of Materials Science and NanoEngineering, the Benjamin M. and Mary Greenwood Anderson Professor in Engineering and a professor of chemistry.

The Air Force Office of Scientific Research sponsored the research, with additional support from the Indo-US Science and Technology Forum, the government of India and a Rice Center for Quantum Materials/Smalley-Curl Postdoctoral Fellowship in Quantum Materials.

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

Atomically thin gallium layers from solid-melt exfoliation by Vidya Kochat, Atanu Samanta, Yuan Zhang, Sanjit Bhowmick, Praveena Manimunda, Syed Asif S. Asif, Anthony S. Stender, Robert Vajtai, Abhishek K. Singh, Chandra S. Tiwary, and Pulickel M. Ajayan. Science Advances 09 Mar 2018: Vol. 4, no. 3, e1701373 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1701373

This paper appears to be open access.