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The evolution of molecules as observed with femtosecond stimulated Raman spectroscopy

A July 3, 2014 news item on Azonano features some recent research from the Université de Montréal (amongst other institutions),

Scientists don’t fully understand how ‘plastic’ solar panels work, which complicates the improvement of their cost efficiency, thereby blocking the wider use of the technology. However, researchers at the University of Montreal, the Science and Technology Facilities Council, Imperial College London and the University of Cyprus have determined how light beams excite the chemicals in solar panels, enabling them to produce charge.

A July 2, 2014 University of Montreal news release, which originated the news item, provides a fascinating description of the ultrafast laser process used to make the observations,

 “We used femtosecond stimulated Raman spectroscopy,” explained Tony Parker of the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s Central Laser Facility. “Femtosecond stimulated Raman spectroscopy is an advanced ultrafast laser technique that provides details on how chemical bonds change during extremely fast chemical reactions. The laser provides information on the vibration of the molecules as they interact with the pulses of laser light.” Extremely complicated calculations on these vibrations enabled the scientists to ascertain how the molecules were evolving. Firstly, they found that after the electron moves away from the positive centre, the rapid molecular rearrangement must be prompt and resemble the final products within around 300 femtoseconds (0.0000000000003 s). A femtosecond is a quadrillionth of a second – a femtosecond is to a second as a second is to 3.7 million years. This promptness and speed enhances and helps maintain charge separation.  Secondly, the researchers noted that any ongoing relaxation and molecular reorganisation processes following this initial charge separation, as visualised using the FSRS method, should be extremely small.

As for why the researchers’ curiosity was stimulated (from the news release),

The researchers have been investigating the fundamental beginnings of the reactions that take place that underpin solar energy conversion devices, studying the new brand of photovoltaic diodes that are based on blends of polymeric semiconductors and fullerene derivatives. Polymers are large molecules made up of many smaller molecules of the same kind – consisting of so-called ‘organic’ building blocks because they are composed of atoms that also compose molecules for life (carbon, nitrogen, sulphur). A fullerene is a molecule in the shape of a football, made of carbon. “In these and other devices, the absorption of light fuels the formation of an electron and a positive charged species. To ultimately provide electricity, these two attractive species must separate and the electron must move away. If the electron is not able to move away fast enough then the positive and negative charges simple recombine and effectively nothing changes. The overall efficiency of solar devices compares how much recombines and how much separates,” explained Sophia Hayes of the University of Cyprus, last author of the study.

… “Our findings open avenues for future research into understanding the differences between material systems that actually produce efficient solar cells and systems that should as efficient but in fact do not perform as well. A greater understanding of what works and what doesn’t will obviously enable better solar panels to be designed in the future,” said the University of Montreal’s Carlos Silva, who was senior author of the study.

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

Direct observation of ultrafast long-range charge separation at polymer–fullerene heterojunctions by Françoise Provencher, Nicolas Bérubé, Anthony W. Parker, Gregory M. Greetham, Michael Towrie, Christoph Hellmann, Michel Côté, Natalie Stingelin, Carlos Silva & Sophia C. Hayes. Nature Communications 5, Article number: 4288 doi:10.1038/ncomms5288 Published 01 July 2014

This article is behind a paywall but there is a free preview available vie ReadCube Access.

Art (Lawren Harris and the Group of Seven), science (Raman spectroscopic examinations), and other collisions at the 2014 Canadian Chemistry Conference (part 4 of 4)

Cultural heritage and the importance of pigments and databases

Unlike Thom (Ian Thom, curator at the Vancouver Art Gallery), I believe that the testing was important. Knowing the spectra emitted by the pigments in Hurdy Gurdy and Autumn Harbour could help to set benchmarks for establishing the authenticity of the pigments used by artists (Harris and others) in the early part of Canada’s 20th century.

Europeans and Americans are more advanced in their use of technology as a tool in the process of authenticating, restoring, or conserving a piece of art. At the Chicago Institute of Art they identified the red pigment used in a Renoir painting as per my March 24, 2014 posting,

… The first item concerns research by Richard Van Duyne into the nature of the red paint used in one of Renoir’s paintings. A February 14, 2014 news item on Azonano describes some of the art conservation work that Van Duyne’s (nanoish) technology has made possible along with details about this most recent work,

Scientists are using powerful analytical and imaging tools to study artworks from all ages, delving deep below the surface to reveal the process and materials used by some of the world’s greatest artists.

Northwestern University chemist Richard P. Van Duyne, in collaboration with conservation scientists at the Art Institute of Chicago, has been using a scientific method he discovered nearly four decades ago to investigate masterpieces by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Winslow Homer and Mary Cassatt.

Van Duyne recently identified the chemical components of paint, now partially faded, used by Renoir in his oil painting “Madame Léon Clapisson.” Van Duyne discovered the artist used carmine lake, a brilliant but light-sensitive red pigment, on this colorful canvas. The scientific investigation is the cornerstone of a new exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago.

There are some similarities between the worlds of science (in this case, chemistry) and art (collectors,  institutions, curators, etc.). They are worlds where one must be very careful.

The scientists/chemists choose their words with precision while offering no certainties. Even the announcement for the discovery (by physicists) of the Higgs Boson is not described in absolute terms as I noted in my July 4, 2012 posting titled: Tears of joy as physicists announce they’re pretty sure they found the Higgs Boson. As the folks from ProsPect Scientific noted,

This is why the science must be tightly coupled with art expertise for an effective analysis.  We cannot do all of that for David [Robertson]. [He] wished to show a match between several pigments to support an interpretation that the ‘same’ paints were used. The availability of Hurdy Gurdy made this plausible because it offered a known benchmark that lessened our dependency on the databases and art-expertise. This is why Raman spectroscopy more often disproves authenticity (through pigment anachronisms). Even if all of the pigments analysed showed the same spectra we don’t know that many different painters didn’t buy the same brand of paint or that some other person didn’t take those same paints and use them for a different painting. Even if all pigments were different, that doesn’t mean Lawren Harris didn’t paint it, it just means different paints were used.

In short they proved that one of the pigments used in Autumn Harbour was also used in the authenticated Harris, Hurdy Gurdy, and the other pigment was in use at that time (early 20th century) in Canada. It doesn’t prove it’s a Harris painting but, unlike the Pollock painting where they found an anachronistic pigment, it doesn’t disprove Robertson’s contention.

To contrast the two worlds, the art world seems to revel in secrecy for its own sake while the world of science (chemistry) will suggest, hint, or hedge but never state certainties. The ProSpect* Scientific representative commented on authentication, art institutions, and databases,

We know that some art institutions are extremely cautious about any claims towards authentication, and they decline to be cited in anything other than the work they directly undertake. (One director of a well known US art institution said to me that they pointedly do not authenticate works, she offered advice on how to conduct the analysis but declined any reference to her institution.) We cannot comment on any of the business plans of any of our customers but the customers we have that use Raman spectroscopy on paintings generally build databases from their collected studies as a vital tool to their own ongoing work collecting and preserving works of art.

We don’t know of anyone with a database particular to pigments used by Canadian artists and neither did David R. We don’t know that any organization is developing such a database.The database we used is a mineral database (as pigments in the early 20th century were pre-synthetic this database contains some of the things commonly used in pigments at that time) There are databases available for many things:  many are for sale, some are protected intellectual property. We don’t have immediate access to a pigments database. Some of our art institution/museum customers are developing their own but often these are not publicly available. Raman spectroscopy is new on the scene relative to other techniques like IR and X-Ray analysis and the databases of Raman spectra are less mature.

ProSpect Scientific provided two papers which illustrate either the chemists’ approach to testing and art (RAMAN VIBRATIONAL STUDY OF PIGMENTS WITH PATRIMONIAL INTEREST FOR THE CHILEAN CULTURAL HERITAGE) and/or the art world’s approach (GENUINE OR FAKE: A MICRO-RAMAN SPECTROSCOPY STUDY OF AN ABSTRACT PAINTING ATTRIBUTED TO VASILY KANDINSKY [PDF]).

Canadian cultural heritage

Whether or not Autumn Harbour is a Lawren Harris painting may turn out to be less important than establishing a means for better authenticating, restoring, and conserving Canadian cultural heritage. (In a June 13, 2014 telephone conversation, David Robertson claims he will forward the summary version of the data from the tests to the Canadian Conservation Institute once it is received.)

If you think about it, Canadians are defined by the arts and by research. While our neighbours to the south went through a revolutionary war to declare independence, Canadians have declared independence through the visual and literary arts and the scientific research and implementation of technology (transportation and communication in the 19th and 20th centuries).

Thank you to both Tony Ma and David Robertson.

Finally, Happy Canada Day on July 1, 2014!

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

* ‘ProsPect’ changed to ‘ProSpect’ on June 30, 2014.

ETA July 14, 2014 at 1300 hours PDT: There is now an addendum to this series, which features a reply from the Canadian Conservation Institute to a query about art pigments used by Canadian artists and access to a database of information about them.

Lawren Harris (Group of Seven), art authentication, and the Canadian Conservation Insitute (addendum to four-part series)

Dimpling can be more than cute, morphable surfaces (smorphs) from MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)

A morphable surface developed by an MIT team can change surface texture — from smooth to dimply, and back again — through changes in pressure. When the inside pressure is reduced, the flexible material shrinks, and the stiffer outer layer wrinkles. Increasing pressure returns the surface to a smooth state.

A June 24, 2014 news item on Nanowerk features a story about the origins of the dimpled golf ball, aerodynamics, and some very pink material (Note: A link has been removed),

There is a story about how the modern golf ball, with its dimpled surface, came to be: In the mid-1800s, it is said, new golf balls were smooth, but became dimpled over time as impacts left permanent dents. Smooth new balls were typically used for tournament play, but in one match, a player ran short, had to use an old, dented one, and realized that he could drive this dimpled ball much further than a smooth one.

Whether that story is true or not, testing over the years has proved that a golf ball’s irregular surface really does dramatically increase the distance it travels, because it can cut the drag caused by air resistance in half. Now researchers at MIT are aiming to harness that same effect to reduce drag on a variety of surfaces — including domes that sometimes crumple in high winds, or perhaps even vehicles.

Detailed studies of aerodynamics have shown that while a ball with a dimpled surface has half the drag of a smooth one at lower speeds, at higher speeds that advantage reverses. So the ideal would be a surface whose smoothness can be altered, literally, on the fly — and that’s what the MIT team has developed.

The new work is described in a paper in the journal Advanced Materials (“Smart Morphable Surfaces for Aerodynamic Drag Control”) by MIT’s Pedro Reis and former MIT postdocs Denis Terwagne (now at the Université Libre de Bruxelles in Belgium) and Miha Brojan (now at the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia).

esearchers made this sphere to test their concept of morphable surfaces. Made of soft polymer with a hollow center, and a thin coating of a stiffer polymer, the sphere becomes dimpled when the air is pumped out of the hollow center, causing it to shrink. (Photo courtesy of the MIT researchers)

Researchers made this sphere to test their concept of morphable surfaces. Made of soft polymer with a hollow center, and a thin coating of a stiffer polymer, the sphere becomes dimpled when the air is pumped out of the hollow center, causing it to shrink. (Photo courtesy of the MIT researchers)

A June 24, 2014 MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) news release (also on EurekAlert) by David Chandler, which originated the news item, provides more detail about the work,

The ability to change the surface in real time comes from the use of a multilayer material with a stiff skin and a soft interior — the same basic configuration that causes smooth plums to dry into wrinkly prunes. To mimic that process, Reis and his team made a hollow ball of soft material with a stiff skin — with both layers made of rubberlike materials — then extracted air from the hollow interior to make the ball shrink and its surface wrinkle.

“Numerous studies of wrinkling have been done on flat surfaces,” says Reis, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering and civil and environmental engineering. “Less is known about what happens when you curve the surface. How does that affect the whole wrinkling process?”

The answer, it turns out, is that at a certain degree of shrinkage, the surface can produce a dimpled pattern that’s very similar to that of a golf ball — and with the same aerodynamic properties.

The aerodynamic properties of dimpled balls can be a bit counterintuitive: One might expect that a ball with a smooth surface would sail through the air more easily than one with an irregular surface. The reason for the opposite result has to do with the nature of a small layer of the air next to the surface of the ball. The irregular surface, it turns out, holds the airflow close to the ball’s surface longer, delaying the separation of this boundary layer. This reduces the size of the wake — the zone of turbulence behind the ball — which is the primary cause of drag for blunt objects.

When the researchers saw the wrinkled outcomes of their initial tests with their multilayer spheres, “We realized that these samples look just like golf balls,” Reis says. “We systematically tested them in a wind tunnel, and we saw a reduction in drag very similar to that of golf balls.”

Because the surface texture can be controlled by adjusting the balls’ interior pressure, the degree of drag reduction can be controlled at will. “We can generate that surface topography, or erase it,” Reis says. “That reversibility is why this is pretty interesting; you can switch the drag-reducing effect on and off, and tune it.”

As a result of that variability, the team refers to these as “smart morphable surfaces” — or “smorphs,” for short. The pun is intentional, Reis says: The paper’s lead author — Terwagne, a Belgian comics fan — pointed out that one characteristic of Smurfs cartoon characters is that no matter how old they get, they never develop wrinkles.

Terwagne says that making the morphable surfaces for lab testing required a great deal of trial-and-error — work that ultimately yielded a simple and efficient fabrication process. “This beautiful simplicity to achieve a complex functionality is often used by nature,” he says, “and really inspired me to investigate further.”

Many researchers have studied various kinds of wrinkled surfaces, with possible applications in areas such as adhesion, or even unusual optical properties. “But we are the first to use wrinkling for aerodynamic properties,” Reis says.

The drag reduction of a textured surface has already expanded beyond golf balls: The soccer ball being used at this year’s World Cup, for example, uses a similar effect; so do some track suits worn by competitive runners. For many purposes, such as in golf and soccer, constant dimpling is adequate, Reis says.

But in other uses, the ability to alter a surface could prove useful: For example, many radar antennas are housed in spherical domes, which can collapse catastrophically in very high winds. A dome that could alter its surface to reduce drag when strong winds are expected might avert such failures, Reis suggests. Another application could be the exterior of automobiles, where the ability to adjust the texture of panels to minimize drag at different speeds could increase fuel efficiency, he says.

Delightful is not the first adjective that jumps to my mind when describing this work but I’m not an engineer (from the news release),

John Rogers, a professor of materials research and engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who was not involved in this work, says, “It represents a delightful example of how controlled processes of mechanical buckling can be used to create three-dimensional structures with interesting aerodynamic properties. The type of dynamic tuning of sophisticated surface morphologies made possible by this approach would be difficult or impossible to achieve in any other way.”

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

Smart Morphable Surfaces for Aerodynamic Drag Control by Denis Terwagne, Miha Brojan, and Pedro M. Reis. Advanced Materials DOI: 10.1002/adma.201401403 Article first published online: 23 JUN 2014

© 2014 WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

This paper is behind a paywall.

Sweet, sugary computer (calculator); chemistry in action

This computer is also described as sugar-based molecular computing in a June 19, 2014 news item on Nanowerk,

In a chemistry lab at the Friedrich Schiller University Jena (Germany): Prof. Dr. Alexander Schiller works at a rectangular plastic board with 384 small wells. The chemist carefully pipets some drops of sugar solution into a row of the tiny reaction vessels. As soon as the fluid has mixed with the contents of the vessels, fluorescence starts in some of the wells. What the Junior Professor for Photonic Materials does here – with his own hands – could also be called in a very simplified way, the ‘sweetest computer in the world’. The reason: the sugar molecules Schiller uses are part of a chemical sequence for information processing.

A June 19, 2014 Friedrich Schiller University Jena news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides an description by the lead researcher, Schiller,

Professor Schiller explains. “There is either electricity flowing between both poles of an electric conductor or there isn’t.” These potential differences are being coded as “0″ and “1″ and can be linked via logic gates – the Boolean operators like AND, OR, NOT. In this way, a number of different starting signals and complex circuits are possible.

These logic links however can also be realized with the help of chemical substances, as the Jena chemists were able to show. For their ‘sugar computer’ they use several components: One fluorescent dye and a so-called fluorescence quencher. “If there are both components involved, the colorant can’t display its impact and we don’t see a fluorescence signal,” Schiller says. But if sugar molecules are involved, the fluorescence quencher reacts with the sugar and thus loses its capability to suppress the fluorescence signal, which makes the dye fluorescent. Depending on whether the dye, the fluorescence quencher and the sugar are on hand to give the signal, a fluorescent signal results – “1″ – or no signal – “0″.

“We link chemical reactions with computer algorithms in our system in order to process complex information,” Martin Elstner explains. “If a fluorescence signal is registered, the algorithm determines what goes into the reaction vessel next.” In this way signals are not translated and processed in a current flow, like in a computer but in a flow of matter. That their chemical processing platform works, Schiller and his staff demonstrated in the current study with the sample calculation 10 + 15. “It took our sugar computer about 40 minutes, but the result was correct,” Prof. Schiller says smiling, and clarifies: “It is not our aim to develop a chemical competition to established computer chips.” The chemist rather sees the field of application in medical diagnostics. So it is for instance conceivable to connect the chemical analysis of several parameters of blood and urine samples via the molecular logic platform for a final diagnosis and thus enable decisions for therapies.

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

Sugar-based Molecular Computing by Material Implication by Martin Elstner, Jörg Axthelm, and Prof.Dr. Alexander Schiller. Angewandte Chemie International Edition DOI: 10.1002/anie.201403769 Article first published online: 12 JUN 2014

© 2014 WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

This paper is behind a paywall.

One final note, Friedrich Schiller University Jena is also known as the University of Jena.

Physics, nanopores, viruses, and DNA

A June 17, 2014 news item on Azonano describes a project which could help scientists decode strands of DNA at top speeds,

Nanopores may one day lead a revolution in DNA sequencing. By sliding DNA molecules one at a time through tiny holes in a thin membrane, it may be possible to decode long stretches of DNA at lightning speeds. Scientists, however, haven’t quite figured out the physics of how polymer strands like DNA interact with nanopores. Now, with the help of a particular type of virus, researchers from Brown University have shed new light on this nanoscale physics.

“What got us interested in this was that everybody in the field studied DNA and developed models for how they interact with nanopores,” said Derek Stein, associate professor of physics and engineering at Brown [Brown University, US] who directed the research. “But even the most basic things you would hope models would predict starting from the basic properties of DNA — you couldn’t do it. The only way to break out of that rut was to study something different.”

A June 16, 2014 Brown University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the problems with nanopores,

The concept behind nanopore sequencing is fairly simple. A hole just a few billionths of a meter wide is poked in a membrane separating two pools of salty water. An electric current is applied to the system, which occasionally snares a charged DNA strand and whips it through the pore — a phenomenon called translocation. When a molecule translocates, it causes detectable variations in the electric current across the pore. By looking carefully at those variations in current, scientists may be able to distinguish individual nucleotides — the A’s, C’s, G’s and T’s coded in DNA molecules.

The first commercially available nanopore sequencers may only be a few years away, but despite advances in the field, surprisingly little is known about the basic physics involved when polymers interact with nanopores. That’s partly because of the complexities involved in studying DNA. In solution, DNA molecules form balls of random squiggles, which make understanding their physical behavior extremely difficult.

For example, the factors governing the speed of DNA translocation aren’t well understood. Sometimes molecules zip through a pore quickly; other times they slither more slowly, and nobody completely understands why.

One possible explanation is that the squiggly configuration of DNA causes each molecule to experience differences in drag as they’re pulled through the water toward the pore. “If a molecule is crumpled up next to the pore, it has a shorter distance to travel and experiences less drag,” said Angus McMullen, a physics graduate student at Brown and the study’s lead author. “But if it’s stretched out then it would feel drag along the whole length and that would cause it to go slower.”

The news release then goes on to detail a possible solution to the problem of why DNA translocation varies in speed. Answering this question about DNA translocation could lead to faster and more accurate nanopore sequencing,

The drag effect is impossible to isolate experimentally using DNA, but the virus McMullen and his colleagues studied offered a solution.

The researchers looked at fd, a harmless virus that infects e. coli bacteria. Two things make the virus an ideal candidate for study with nanpores. First, fd viruses are all identical clones of each other. Second, unlike squiggly DNA, fd virus is a stiff, rod-like molecule. Because the virus doesn’t curl up like DNA does, the effect of drag on each one should be essentially the same every time.

With drag eliminated as a source of variation in translocation speed, the researchers expected that the only source of variation would be the effect of thermal motion. The tiny virus molecules constantly bump up against the water molecules in which they are immersed. A few random thermal kicks from the rear would speed the virus up as it goes through the pore. A few kicks from the front would slow it down.

The experiments showed that while thermal motion explained much of the variation in translocation speed, it didn’t explain it all. Much to the researchers’ surprise, they found another source of variation that increased when the voltage across the pore was increased.

“We thought that the physics would be crystal clear,” said Jay Tang, associate professor of physics and engineering at Brown and one of the study’s co-authors. “You have this stiff [virus] with well-defined diameter and size and you would expect a very clear-cut signal. As it turns out, we found some puzzling physics we can only partially explain ourselves.”

The researchers can’t say for sure what’s causing the variation they observed, but they have a few ideas.

“It’s been predicted that depending on where [an object] is inside the pore, it might be pulled harder or weaker,” McMullen said. “If it’s in the center of the pore, it pulls a little bit weaker than if it’s right on the edge. That’s been predicted, but never experimentally verified. This could be evidence of that happening, but we’re still doing follow up work.

The new approach using a virus answered questions while leading to new insights and possibilities (from the news release),

A better understanding of translocation speed could improve the accuracy of nanopore sequencing, McMullen says. It would also be helpful in the crucial task of measuring the length of DNA strands. “If you can predict the translocation speed,” McMullen said, “then you can easily get the length of the DNA from how long its translocation was.”

The research also helped to reveal other aspects of the translocation process that could be useful in designing future devices. The study showed that the electrical current tends to align the viruses head first to the pore, but on occasions when they’re not lined up, they tend to bounce around on the edge of the pore until thermal motion aligns them to go through. However, when the voltage was turned too high, the thermal effects were suppressed and the virus became stuck to the membrane. That suggests a sweet spot in voltage where headfirst translocation is most likely.

None of this is observable directly — the system is simply too small to be seen in action. But the researchers could infer what was happening by looking at slight changes in the current across the pore.

“When the viruses miss, they rattle around and we see these little bumps in the current,” Stein said. “So with these little bumps, we’re starting to get an idea of what the molecule is doing before it slides through. Normally these sensors are blind to anything that’s going on until the molecule slides through.”

That would have been impossible to observe using DNA. The floppiness of the DNA molecule allows it to go through a pore in a folded configuration even if it’s not aligned head-on. But because the virus is stiff, it can’t fold to go through. That enabled the researchers to isolate and observe those contact dynamics.

“These viruses are unique,” Stein said. “They’re like perfect little yardsticks.”

In addition to shedding light on basic physics, the work might also have another application. While the fd virus itself is harmless, the bacteria it infects — e. coli — is not. Based on this work, it might be possible to build a nanopore device for detecting the presence of fd, and by proxy, e. coli. Other dangerous viruses — Ebola and Marburg among them — share the same rod-like structure as fd.

“This might be an easy way to detect these viruses,” Tang said. “So that’s another potential application for this.”

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

Stiff filamentous virus translocations through solid-state nanopores by Angus McMullen, Hendrick W. de Haan, Jay X. Tang, & Derek Stein. Nature Communications 5, Article number: 4171 doi:10.1038/ncomms5171 Published 16 June 2014

This paper is behind a paywall.

Charging portable electronics in 10 minutes (hopefully) with a 3D (silicon-decorated) carbon nanotube cluster

I sometimes think there’s a worldwide obsession with lithium-ion batteries as hardly a day passes without at least one story about them. To honour that obsession, here’s a June 11, 2014 news item on Azonano describing a new technique which could lead to a faster charging time for mobile electronics,

Researchers at the University of California, Riverside [UCR] Bourns College of Engineering have developed a three-dimensional, silicon-decorated, cone-shaped carbon-nanotube cluster architecture for lithium ion battery anodes that could enable charging of portable electronics in 10 minutes, instead of hours.

A June 10, 2014 UCR news release by Sean Nealon, which originated the news item, notes the ubiquity of lithium-ion batteries in modern electronics and explains why silicon was used in this research,

Lithium ion batteries are the rechargeable battery of choice for portable electronic devices and electric vehicles. But, they present problems. Batteries in electric vehicles are responsible for a significant portion of the vehicle mass. And the size of batteries in portable electronics limits the trend of down-sizing.

Silicon is a type of anode material that is receiving a lot of attention because its total charge capacity is 10 times higher than commercial graphite based lithium ion battery anodes. Consider a packaged battery full-cell. Replacing the commonly used graphite anode with silicon anodes will potentially result in a 63 percent increase of total cell capacity and a battery that is 40 percent lighter and smaller.

The news release then provides a very brief description of the technology,

…, UC Riverside researchers developed a novel structure of three-dimensional silicon decorated cone-shaped carbon nanotube clusters architecture via chemical vapor deposition and inductively coupled plasma treatment.

Lithium ion batteries based on this novel architecture demonstrate a high reversible capacity and excellent cycling stability. The architecture demonstrates excellent electrochemical stability and irreversibility even at high charge and discharge rates, nearly 16 times faster than conventionally used graphite based anodes.

The researchers believe the ultrafast rate of charge and discharge can be attributed to two reasons, said Wei Wang, lead author of the paper.

One, the seamless connection between graphene covered copper foil and carbon nanotubes enhances the active material-current collector contact integrity which facilitates charge and thermal transfer in the electrode system.

Two, the cone-shaped architecture offers small interpenetrating channels for faster electrolyte access into the electrode which may enhance the rate performance.

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

Silicon Decorated Cone Shaped Carbon Nanotube Clusters for Lithium Ion Battery Anodes by Wei Wang, Isaac Ruiz, Kazi Ahmed, Hamed Hosseini Bay, Aaron S. George, Johnny Wang, John Butler, Mihrimah Ozkan, and Cengiz S. Ozkan. Small DOI: 10.1002/smll.201400088 Article first published online: 19 APR 2014

© 2014 WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

This paper is behind a paywall.

Canadian Science Policy Conference call for proposals (***deadline extended to June 20, 2014***)

The deadline for making a proposal is June 6, 2014 (No, it’s June 20, 2014 according to a June 6, 2014 announcement from the conference organizers) for the 2014 Canadian Science Policy Conference (CSPC) being held in Halifax, Nova Scotia from Oct. 15 – 17, 2014. Here’s more about the call from the CSPC (Canadian Science Policy Conference) Call for Proposals webpage,

Sessions should fall under one of the specified themes of the conference.

  1. Canadian Science and Technology Strategy: Looking Towards 2020
  2. Advancing Canadian Economic Development with S&T
  3. Science and Risk in an International Context
  4. Innovation in Partnerships

Proposal should identify both the approach to the theme and identify experts who have been (or will be) approached to participate and who can provide substantial contributions to the theme. Please note the proposals in each theme will compete with each other and some themes may be more popular and, hence, more competitive.

Here are the formats,

Format 1 – Standard Panel – expert panellists provide their independent opinion on an issue framed by the Chair/moderator

  • Total time allocation – 90 min
  • Panellists – Chair/moderator plus max of 4 presenters
  • Max time for panellist presentations – 60 min; 30 min to be reserved for discussion
  • Rationale required for submission:
    • What is the issue in the context of the 2014 themes?
    • Why it is important?
    • Why this panel is the right group to address the issue?
    • What are the intended outcomes?

Format 2 – Green Paper Discussions – discussion focussed on issues raised in papers available to participants in advance and catalyzed by the commentary of expert respondents

  • Total time allocation – 90 -120 min
  • Possible approach:
    • Chair/moderator to set context – 5 min
    • Green paper author(s) – 15 min (paper should be available to participants in advance)
    • Respondents  – 3 @ 10 min each
    • Discussion – 30-45 min
    • Chair/moderator to lead discussion on next steps
  • Rationale required for submission:
    • What is the issue in the context of the 2014 themes?
    • Why it is important?
    • Why the proposed Green Paper authors and respondents is panel constitute the right group to address the issue?
    • What are the intended outcomes – e.g. transforming the Green Paper to a White Paper and who is the target audience?

Format 3 – Case Studies – a means of learning from diverse experiences relating to the theme issue – from Canadian and international sources:

  • Total time allocation – 90 to 120 min
  • Panellists – Chair/moderator plus max of 4 case studies
  • Max time for panellist presentations – 60 min; 30 to 60 min to be reserved for discussion
  • Rationale required for submission:
    • What is the key issue being addressed in the context of the 2014 themes?
    • Why it is important?
    • Why these case studies, both individually and collectively, provide critical insights on the identified issue?
    • What are the next steps envisioned as a result of reviewing these case studies?

Format 4 – Lightning/TED-type Talks – a means of engaging up to 8 participants in presenting their perspectives on a specific issue within a theme in very brief highly focused presentations (with visuals).

  • Total time allocation – 90 min
  • Participants and role:
    • Chair/moderator to outline issue and approach (5 min)
    • 6 to 8 presenters (5 min each; strictly managed) (40 min)
    • Discussion – 30 min
    • Respondent/synthesis of issues – 10 min
  • Rationale required for submission:
    • What is the key issue being addressed in the context of the 2014 themes?
    • Why it is important?
    • Why a collection of lightning talks is a good way to address the issue?

Format 5 – Interactive Learning Session – an approach to engaging participants in a hands on learning/participatory activity – in any format. A bare minimum of formal presentation should be envisioned for such a format

  • Total time allocation – 60 to 90 min
  • Participants and role:
    • Chair/moderator to outline issue and approach (5 min)
    • Interactive session – 50 – 80 min
    • Wrap up – 10 min
  • Rationale required for submission:
    • What is the key issue being addressed in the context of the 2014 themes?
    • Why it is important?
    • What will be the take-away for the participants?

Format 6 – Debate Format – expert panellists with different opinions get to engage in a debate to provide insights on a particular issue. The session will be heavily moderated by a Chair/moderator

  • Total time allocation – 90 min
  • Panellists – Chair/moderator plus max of 4 presenters
  • Max time for panellist presentations – 60 min; 30 min to be reserved for discussion
  • Rationale required for submission:
    • What is the issue in the context of the 2014 themes?
    • Why it is important?
    • Why this panel is the right group to address the issue?
    • What are the intended outcomes?

Format 7 – At Issue Format – expert panellists provide their independent opinion on series of issues in an interactive session framed by the Chair/moderator

  • Total time allocation – 90 min
  • Panellists – Chair/moderator plus max of 4 presenters
  • Max time for panellist presentations 4- 6 blocks of 10-15 minutes for each topic
  • Rationale required for submission:
    • What is the issue in the context of the 2014 themes?
    • Why it is important?
    • Why this panel is the right group to address the issue?
    • What are the intended outcomes?

I suppose it’s a bit early to announce the keynote speakers but organizers have announced honorary conference co-chairs: Frank McKenna, Deputy Chairman of the Toronto Dominion Bank and John Risley, President and CEO (Chief Executive Officer) of Clearwater Fine Foods.

In light of these corporate co-chairs, it’s interesting to note this about the criteria being used to evaluate the submissions, from the CSPC (Canadian Science Policy Conference) Call for Proposals webpage,

Quality is the primary criterion in ranking proposals for CSPC sessions. Quality will be assessed on the following basis:

  • Content and Topic:
    • Timely and relevant to Canadian science policy
    • Provides a compelling understanding of the S&T policy dimensions of the issue
  • Speakers:
    • Knowledge and experience
    • Ability to garner public attention
    • Profile in science and innovation policy, both in Canada and internationally
  • Format:
    • Proposals should identify the format of the proposed CSPC session and the rationale for the choice of that format.  CSPC is seeking creative approaches that will engage the participants and lead to tangible outcomes.
  • Delivery:
    • Evidence of coordination and communication among speakers

I don’t think I’ve ever seen the ‘ability to garner public attention’ associated with the quality of a policy or, for that matter, academic presentation. I wonder what impact getting Pamela Anderson (in the past, she has been quite vocal about animal testing and scientific research) or Justin Bieber (perhaps he has a song about science?) to be a panel member would have on your chances of an acceptance?

Facetiousness aside, all conference organizers want to encourage attendance and getting someone who attracts attention to your conference is par for the course. I just wish these organizers would also consider the possibility of creating science ‘superstars’ and part of  that process means building up excitement about someone who may not be well known.

Sanofi BioGENEius Challenge Canada (SBCC) 2014 regional competitions

The Sanofi BioGENEius Challenge competitions seem to have been scheduled a little later this year. I announced the 2013 national winners of the Sanofi BioGENEius Challenge Canada (SBCC) competition in an April 9, 2013 posting and, for this year, I’ve just received word the regional competitions start today, March 27, 2014, and end April 29, 2014 with the national competition being held in Ottawa on May 23, 2014 and the international competition held in San Diego, California, June 22 – 25, 2014.

Here’s more about the competitions from the March 26, 2014 SBCC news release,

Hundreds of Canada’s most gifted high school and CEGEP students and their mentors, teachers and parents, will come together for the 2014 “Sanofi BioGENEius Challenge Canada (SBCC)”, Canada’s only national  biotechnology competition with mentors from Canada’s top universities and research institutes. Inspired by the question “How will you change the world?”, these Canadian teens aim to create astounding and life-changing discoveries.

  • This year, over 200 proposals were received from high school and CEGEP students from Victoria to Saskatoon to St. John’s, focused on biotechnology fields of discovery and study.
  • Now in its 21st year, over 4,700 high school students across Canada have participated in the “Sanofi BioGENEius Challenge Canada (SBCC)”.
    • Working closely with mentors, these students have conducted research in diverse areas such as telomeres, diabetes, stress management, Alzheimers, autism and pulp production.
  • The first place winner of the competition will advance to the International BioGENEius Challenge held in San Diego, CA on June 22-25. For a full schedule of dates, locations and judges, click here.

I believe it is possible for members of the public to view the competitions, here’s a list of cities along with the dates (just click on a date to find details about the location),

Regional competitions begin in Montreal, Quebec on March 27. Over the next few weeks, the SBCC will take place in Winnipeg, MB (April 22), Vancouver, BC (April 17), Edmonton, AB (April 28), Saskatoon, SK (April 28), Southwestern Ontario/Guelph, ON (May 1), Toronto, ON (April 29), Eastern Ontario/Ottawa, ON (April 28) and Atlantic Canada/Sackville, NB (April 29). The competition will conclude at the Partners In Research National Awards (PIRNA) in Ottawa on May 23, 2014.

Good luck to all the entrants!

An exploration of the grotesque: Glenn Brown and Rebecca Warren at the Rennie Collection

Before launching into my impressions of the current show (Oct. 26, 2013 – March 29, 2014) at the Rennie Collection (located in Vancouver, Canada) I’m providing an excerpt from the Wikipedia entry on the word grotesque (Note: Links have been removed),

The word grotesque comes from the same Latin root as “grotto”, which originated from Greek krypte “hidden place”,[1] meaning a small cave or hollow. The original meaning was restricted to an extravagant style of Ancient Roman decorative art rediscovered and then copied in Rome at the end of the 15th century. The “caves” were in fact rooms and corridors of the Domus Aurea, the unfinished palace complex started by Nero after the Great Fire of Rome in AD 64, which had become overgrown and buried, until they were broken into again, mostly from above. Spreading from Italian to the other European languages, the term was long used largely interchangeably with arabesque and moresque for types of decorative patterns using curving foliage elements.

Since at least the 18th century (in French and German as well as English), grotesque has come to be used as a general adjective for the strange, fantastic, ugly, incongruous, unpleasant, or disgusting, and thus is often used to describe weird shapes and distorted forms such as Halloween masks. In art, performance, and literature, grotesque, however, may also refer to something that simultaneously invokes in an audience a feeling of uncomfortable bizarreness as well as empathic pity. [emphases mine] More specifically, the grotesque forms on Gothic buildings, when not used as drain-spouts, should not be called gargoyles, but rather referred to simply as grotesques, or chimeras.[2]

While my understanding of the word is rooted in its meaning since the 18th century, I couldn’t resist the look backwards to ancient Rome and Greece. In any event, the heading for my post abut the Rennie Collection’s current exhibition concerns the grotesque which is “strange, fantastic, ugly, incongruous, unpleasant, or disgusting” and which “invokes in an audience a feeling of uncomfortable bizarreness as well as empathic pity.”

The entry to the show (main floor) gets the experience off to a deceptive start. The Rebecca Warren (she’s a sculptor) piece showcased here is a series of three vitrines (boxes) with plexiglass covers protecting the artwork within. Arranged in a row, they are small, oblong boxes mounted  at about 5 ft. (?) high on the wall. Rusty nails protrude at odd angles from the boxes, electronic devices of some sort are mounted below the boxes and there are bits of found objects and relatively unshaped clay on top of the boxes, as well as, twigs, more found objects, a neon object, and clay objects inside the boxes, behind the plexiglass covers.

Samantha (or Sam), an Emily Carr University of Art + Design student, sculptor, and our guide (one visits the Collection as part of a group at a prearranged time), provided some context for viewing this piece and the rest of the show. She was very illuminating and, unfortunately, it has been some weeks since I viewed the show and retain only bits and pieces remain (somehow this seems reflective of the vitrines). The one piece of information that I retain about Warren’s first piece is that the middle box has a layer of dust covering the objects within. Sam noted this is deliberate and the artist has specific instructions about how much dust there should be on the objects and on the base of the middle box in the row.

One moves deeper into the first floor’s display areas to view Brown’s first piece, a painting, a rather strange painting. It had a weirdly yellowish cast and it’s main feature looked like a skull to me but others saw something else,  a bit like Rorschach test where everything is open to interpretation.

We proceeded upstairs to a glorious room with dizzyingly high ceilings where the rest of Warren’s pieces were shown,

Rebecca Warren sculpture. Courtesy: Rennie Collection

Rebecca Warren sculptures. Courtesy: Rennie Collection

I don’t think the photograph, which shows three of the eight (?) sculptures in the room, quite conveys the impact of walking into a space occupied by these lumpen things with twisted and partial spinal columns, breasts in peculiar places, and other oddities shaped out of a type of clay that is fragile and obviously deteriorating.

The exhibit has a contrasting piece, one made of bronze and cast in a square of sorts. Interestingly, Warren likes to work with pom poms and there are two rather small examples, one each affixed to two different pieces. As I recall, Sam told us it was meant to be humorous and Warren keeps a large supply of pom poms on hand for when she might want to add one to a piece.

There are two more rooms on the second floor and those housed Glenn Brown’s work,

Glenn Brown, The Ever Popular Dead (after 'Jupiter Cloudscape' 1982 by Adolf Schaller), 2000 Oil on canvas 85 5/8 × 132 5/8 inches (217.49 × 336.87 cm) Courtesy: Rennie Collection

Glenn Brown, The Ever Popular Dead (after ‘Jupiter Cloudscape’ 1982 by Adolf Schaller), 2000. Oil on canvas: 85 5/8 × 132 5/8 inches (217.49 × 336.87 cm) Courtesy: Rennie Collection

If it looks like science fiction, that’s because it is. This piece was inspired by some science fiction art associated with Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, both a television series hosted by Carl Sagan and a book by Sagan. (Note: All of this type of information was provided by our guide, Sam, who also did some extra research to buttress her presentation, which was interactive. Thank you for doing that Sam.)

This painting, along with Brown’s other work in this show, rendered me physically nauseous. There was something about the colours and swirls and, possibly, the juxtapostion with Warren’s work that left me feeling ill. (Art can have physical effects. Stendhal famously passed out when visiting Florence, Italy due to a surfeit of art. Apparently, he’s not the only one; you can read more about Stendhal syndrome in this Wikipedia entry.)

Brown’s other paintings featured ‘portraits’ of odd looking people. You could almost recognize the portrait but the person was rendered in odd colours or it was the back of someone’s head—a head which featured many eyes and other oddities, calling to mind science fiction tropes about aliens.

While Brown was referencing classical work, for the most part, he, like Warren, rendered it as a grotesquerie. He even had a picture of two dogs seated at what appears to be a table. At one time, Brown worked in one of the Tate Museum’s (in London, UK) stores and the most popular items for purchase was a print of these two dogs which Brown reproduced in shades of a bilious green.

One of the interesting contrasts in the exhibition, other than sculptor/painter contrast, is that Warren’s work has human origins where Brown’s subject matter seems extraterrestrial. Adding to that impression is Brown’s painting style. There is no sign of a brush stroke; his paintings look as if they were digitally rendered, an effect made possible by his use of paintbrushes containing only a few hairs.

There were two pieces from Brown which didn’t fit this ‘extraterrestial and inhuman’ theme as I’ve described it. One piece, which bore a resemblance of sorts to Warren’s work, was a mound of material that was splattered and laden with paint sitting in the middle of one of the two rooms holding Brown’s work. Despite its sculptural quality, Brown describes the piece as a painting. The other piece was a painting which was cantilevered from the wall, like a pop-up which mimics the shape of what it being depicted. It was the one ‘pretty’ painting of Brown’s pieces. Titled ‘Zombies of the Stratosphere’ (1999), it depicts someone rowing a boat to a forested island.  The yellow in the picture reputedly gets its colour from urine. I now belatedly wonder if the first painting we saw on the bottom floor and which I described as having “a weirdly yellowish cast” also features this paint.

The Brits (Brown is from Britain) have a phrase “taking the piss” which I gather means ‘mocking’. It seems that in the one ‘pretty’ painting, Brown is almost literally ‘taking the piss’. Whether he’s mocking the art world or the fools who wander around art exhibits and/or purchase prints of dogs (considered banal subjects by many artists) from the Tate is not obvious to me.  Well, it’s never good to take yourself too seriously so there’s not much point to getting my ‘knickers in a twist’ over the matter, especially since I have no way of knowing if that was the artist’s intention.

In the end and after the nausea subsided, I was left with the notion that I was looking at two possible futures, one in which humans return to dust (Warren’s work) or we cease to be human as we understand the term (Brown’s work).

There’s not much time left to see the current exhibition, it ends March 29, 2014 and last I looked both scheduled tours were fully booked. You could try to organize and book your own tour, keep checking to see if someone cancels, or go here to see some images from the show.

Finally, I’m not sure either artist could be described as trying to “invoke empathic pity” as per Wikipedia’s ‘grotesque’ but here’s a video (originally an 8mm film) using the old Kansas song, Dust in the Wind as a soundtrack, which may that effect on you,

Like Warren’s work it looks rough and unpolished. Here’s what uselessdirector who uploaded the video had to say about it,

Uploaded on May 30, 2006

Filmed in 1977 by my dad, this music video nearly became “dust in the wind” until it was restored from its failing 8mm format.

The last one, TED 2014′s Session12: Onward

Well this is the last posting in what has been an experimental week for me and I’m ending it with Joi Ito’s talk. Here’s more about Ito from his TED biography,

Joichi “Joi” Ito is one of those names threaded through the history of the Internet. From his days kickstarting Internet culture in Japan at Digital Garage, his restless curiosity led him to be an early-stage investor in Twitter, Six Apart, Wikia, Flickr, Last.fm, Kickstarter and other Internet companies, and to serve on countless boards and advisory committees around digital culture and Internet freedom.

He leads the legendary MIT Media Lab as it heads toward its third decade, and is working on a book with Jeff Howe about nine principles for navigating whatever the changing culture throws at us next. As he told Wired, “The amount of money and the amount of permission that you need to create an idea has decreased dramatically.” So: aim for resilience, not strength; seek risk, not safety. The book is meant to be a compass for a world without maps.

Ito (a self-described three-time college dropout) talked about his experience of co-founding SAFECAST in response to the 2011 earthquake and Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan as he made the case for making, manufacturing, and innovating in a frictionless fashion without having to write up big business plans and expending energy on attracting investment money. He emphasized a ‘can do’ approach for now and for the future and the importance of learning over education.

That’s it for me. It’s been an exhausting and stimulating week and I thank the TED organizers for the access to their event livestream.

Some final thoughts, this event could be have been held anywhere despite attempts at the beginning of TED 2014 to mention Canada and those fell to the wayside fairly shortly. Overall, the efforts to acknowledge Canada were both clumsy and ultimately inadequate if what they were trying to do was give the participants a sense of being on foreign (to the TED main event) soil for the first time in its history.

One of the problems of course is the organizers’ dedication to producing ‘wow’ moments such as  Edward Snowden’s attendance via a telepresent robot. It was a stunning moment and, even remotely, I felt a frisson of excitement. Inevitably, the conversation became much more US-centric and I noticed speakers scheduled for subsequent days were very much grounded in their US reality. The problem was the sheer number of those speakers coming after Snowden (whose impact was huge) and then there was NSA (US National Security Agency) response.

It’s an interesting problem, How do you orchestrate a ‘wow’ moment without having it overshadow everything that comes after? And in this case, how do you mitigate the US-centric impact (assuming you want to) on an event which is being held on foreign soil?

I hope the organizers can find a way to better integrate the event with its surroundings, not the physical surrounding but the social and the cultural. In any event, I look forward (onward?) to next year and I wish the organizers all the best. One final comment, the organizers pulled off some extraordinary juxtapositions of speakers and ideas.