Category Archives: water

Edible water bottles by Ooho!

Courtesy: Skipping Rocks Lab

As far as I’m concerned, that looks more like a breast implant than a water bottle, which, from a psycho-social perspective, could lead to some interesting research papers. It is, in fact a new type of water bottle.  From an April 10, 2017 article by Adele Peters for Fast Company (Note: Links have been removed),

If you run in a race in London in the near future and pass a hydration station, you may be handed a small, bubble-like sphere of water instead of a bottle. The gelatinous packaging, called the Ooho, is compostable–or even edible, if you want to swallow it. And after two years of development, its designers are ready to bring it to market.

Three London-based design students first created a prototype of the edible bottle in 2014 as an alternative to plastic bottles. The idea gained internet hype (though also some scorn for a hilarious video that made the early prototypes look fairly impossible to use without soaking yourself).
The problem it was designed to solve–the number of disposable bottles in landfills–keeps growing. In the U.K. alone, around 16 million are trashed each day; another 19 million are recycled, but still have the environmental footprint of a product made from oil. In the U.S., recycling rates are even lower. …

The new packaging is based on the culinary technique of spherification, which is also used to make fake caviar and the tiny juice balls added to boba tea [bubble tea?]. Dip a ball of ice in calcium chloride and brown algae extract, and you can form a spherical membrane that keeps holding the ice as it melts and returns to room temperature.

An April 25, 2014 article by Kashmira Gander for Independent.co.uk describes the technology and some of the problems that had to be solved before bringing this product to market,

To make the bottle [Ooho!], students at the Imperial College London gave a frozen ball of water a gelatinous layer by dipping it into a calcium chloride solution.

They then soaked the ball in another solution made from brown algae extract to encapsulate the ice in a second membrane, and reinforce the structure.

However, Ooho still has teething problems, as the membrane is only as thick as a fruit skin, and therefore makes transporting the object more difficult than a regular bottle of water.

“This is a problem we’re trying to address with a double container,” Rodrigo García González, who created Ooho with fellow students Pierre Paslier and Guillaume Couche, explained to the Smithsonian. “The idea is that we can pack several individual edible Oohos into a bigger Ooho container [to make] a thicker and more resistant membrane.”

According to Peters’ Fast Company article, the issues have been resolved,

Because the membrane is made from food ingredients, you can eat it instead of throwing it away. The Jell-O-like packaging doesn’t have a natural taste, but it’s possible to add flavors to make it more appetizing.

The package doesn’t have to be eaten every time, since it’s also compostable. “When people try it for the first time, they want to eat it because it’s part of the experience,” says Pierre Paslier, cofounder of Skipping Rocks Lab, the startup developing the packaging. “Then it will be just like the peel of a fruit. You’re not expected to eat the peel of your orange or banana. We are trying to follow the example set by nature for packaging.”

The outer layer of the package is always meant to be peeled like fruit–one thin outer layer of the membrane peels away to keep the inner layer clean and can then be composted. (While compostable cups are an alternative solution, many can only be composted in industrial facilities; the Ooho can be tossed on a simple home compost pile, where it will decompose within weeks).

The company is targeting both outdoor events and cafes. “Where we see a lot of potential for Ooho is outdoor events–festivals, marathons, places where basically there are a lot of people consuming packaging over a very short amount of time,” says Paslier.

I encourage you to read Peters’ article in its entirety if you have the time. You can also find more information on the Skipping Rocks Lab website and on the company’s crowdfunding campaign on CrowdCube.

Cleaning wastewater with fruit peel

A March 23, 2017 news item on phys.org announces a water purification process based on fruit peel,’

A collaborative of researchers has developed a process to clean water containing heavy metals and organic pollutants using a new adsorbent material made from the peels of oranges and grapefruits.

A March 23, 2017 University of Granada press release explains more about the research (Note: Links have been removed),

Researchers from the University of Granada (UGR), and from the Center for Electrochemical Research and Technological Development (Centro de Investigación y Desarrollo Tecnológico en Electroquímica, CIDETEQ) and the Center of Engineering and Industrial Development (Centro de Ingeniería y Desarrollo Industrial, CIDESI), both in Mexico, have developed a process that allows to clean waters containing heavy metals and organic compounds considered pollutants, using a new adsorbent material made from the peels of fruits such as oranges and grapefruits.

Said peels are residues which pose a problem for the food industry, given that they take up a great volume and aren’t very useful nowadays. 38.2 million tons of said fruit peels are estimated to be produced worldwide each year in the food industry.

The research, in which the UGR participates, has served for designing a new process by which, thanks to an Instant Controlled Pressure Drop treatment, it is possible to modify the structure of said residues, giving them adsorbent properties such as a greater porosity and surface area.

Researcher Luis Alberto Romero Cano, from the Carbon Materials Research Team (Grupo de Investigación en Materiales de Carbón) at the Faculty of Science, UGR, explains that, by a subsequent chemical treatment, they “have managed to add functional groups to the material, thus making it selective in order to remove metals and organic pollutants present in water”.

A subsequent research carried out by the authors of this paper has showed that it is possible to pack those new materials in fixed bed columns, in a way similar to a filter by which wastewater runs on a constant flux process, like the usual wastewater treatments. This laboratory-scale study has allowed to obtain parameters to design a large-scale use of said materials.

“The results show a great potential for the use of said materials as adsorbents capable of competing with commercial activated carbon for the adsorption and recovery of metals present in wastewater, in a way that it could be possible to carry out sustainable processes in which products with a great commercial value could be obtained from food industry residues”, Romero Cano says.

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

Biosorbents prepared from orange peels using Instant Controlled Pressure Drop for Cu(II) and phenol removal by Luis A. Romero-Cano, Linda V. Gonzalez-Gutierrez, Leonardo A. Baldenegro-Perez. Industrial Crops and Products Volume 84, June 2016, Pages 344–349  http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.indcrop.2016.02.027

I’m not sure why they decided to promote this research so long after it was published but I’m glad they did. It’s always good to see work designed to make use of what is currently waste. By the way, this paper is behind a paywall.

Using a sponge to remove mercury from lake water

I’ve heard of Lake Como in Italy but Como Lake in Minnesota is a new one for me. The Minnesota lake is featured in a March 22, 2017 news item about water and sponges on phys.org,

Mercury is very toxic and can cause long-term health damage, but removing it from water is challenging. To address this growing problem, University of Minnesota College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Sciences (CFANS) Professor Abdennour Abbas and his lab team created a sponge that can absorb mercury from a polluted water source within seconds. Thanks to the application of nanotechnology, the team developed a sponge with outstanding mercury adsorption properties where mercury contaminations can be removed from tap, lake and industrial wastewater to below detectable limits in less than 5 seconds (or around 5 minutes for industrial wastewater). The sponge converts the contamination into a non-toxic complex so it can be disposed of in a landfill after use. The sponge also kills bacterial and fungal microbes.

Think of it this way: If Como Lake in St. Paul was contaminated with mercury at the EPA limit, the sponge needed to remove all of the mercury would be the size of a basketball.

A March 16, 2017 University of Minnesota news release, which originated the news item, explains why this discovery is important for water supplies in the state of Minnesota,

This is an important advancement for the state of Minnesota, as more than two thirds of the waters on Minnesota’s 2004 Impaired Waters List are impaired because of mercury contamination that ranges from 0.27 to 12.43 ng/L (the EPA limit is 2 ng/L). Mercury contamination of lake waters results in mercury accumulation in fish, leading the Minnesota Department of Health to establish fish consumption guidelines. A number of fish species store-bought or caught in Minnesota lakes are not advised for consumption more than once a week or even once a month. In Minnesota’s North Shore, 10 percent of tested newborns had mercury concentrations above the EPA reference dose for methylmercury (the form of mercury found in fish). This means that some pregnant women in the Lake Superior region, and in Minnesota, have mercury exposures that need to be reduced.  In addition, a reduced deposition of mercury is projected to have economic benefits reflected by an annual state willingness-to-pay of $212 million in Minnesota alone.

According to the US-EPA, cutting mercury emissions to the latest established effluent limit standards would result in 130,000 fewer asthma attacks, 4,700 fewer heart attacks, and 11,000 fewer premature deaths each year. That adds up to at least $37 billion to $90 billion in annual monetized benefits annually.

In addition to improving air and water quality, aquatic life and public health, the new technology would have an impact on inspiring new regulations. Technology shapes regulations, which in turn determine the value of the market. The 2015 EPA Mercury and Air Toxics Standards regulation was estimated to cost the industry around of $9.6 billion annually in 2020. The new U of M technology has a potential of bringing this cost down and make it easy for the industry to meet regulatory requirements.

Research by Abbas and his team was funded by the MnDRIVE Global Food Venture, MnDRIVE Environment, and USDA-NIFA. They currently have three patents on this technology. To learn more, visit www.abbaslab.com.

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

A Nanoselenium Sponge for Instantaneous Mercury Removal to Undetectable Levels by Snober Ahmed, John Brockgreitens, Ke Xu, and Abdennour Abbas. Advanced Functional Materials DOI: 10.1002/adfm.201606572 Version of Record online: 6 MAR 2017

© 2017 WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

This paper is behind a paywall.

Desalination of sea water with a graphene sieve

The proposed use of graphene membranes for water purification and remediation isn’t new (I have a July 20, 2015 posting which covers some of this field of interest). However, there’s this April 3, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily announcing some new work on graphene and desalination at the University of Manchester,

Graphene-oxide membranes have attracted considerable attention as promising candidates for new filtration technologies. Now the much sought-after development of making membranes capable of sieving common salts has been achieved.

New research demonstrates the real-world potential of providing clean drinking water for millions of people who struggle to access adequate clean water sources.

The new findings from a group of scientists at The University of Manchester were published today in the journal Nature Nanotechnology. Previously graphene-oxide membranes have shown exciting potential for gas separation and water filtration.

An April 3, 2017 University of Manchester press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

Graphene-oxide membranes developed at the National Graphene Institute have already demonstrated the potential of filtering out small nanoparticles, organic molecules, and even large salts. Until now, however, they couldn’t be used for sieving common salts used in desalination technologies, which require even smaller sieves.

Previous research at The University of Manchester found that if immersed in water, graphene-oxide membranes become slightly swollen and smaller salts flow through the membrane along with water, but larger ions or molecules are blocked.

The Manchester-based group have now further developed these graphene membranes and found a strategy to avoid the swelling of the membrane when exposed to water. The pore size in the membrane can be precisely controlled which can sieve common salts out of salty water and make it safe to drink.

As the effects of climate change continue to reduce modern city’s water supplies, wealthy modern countries are also investing in desalination technologies. Following the severe floods in California major wealthy cities are also looking increasingly to alternative water solutions.

When the common salts are dissolved in water, they always form a ‘shell’ of water molecules around the salts molecules. This allows the tiny capillaries of the graphene-oxide membranes to block the salt from flowing along with the water. Water molecules are able to pass through the membrane barrier and flow anomalously fast which is ideal for application of these membranes for desalination.

Professor Rahul Nair, at The University of Manchester said: “Realisation of scalable membranes with uniform pore size down to atomic scale is a significant step forward and will open new possibilities for improving the efficiency of desalination technology.

“This is the first clear-cut experiment in this regime. We also demonstrate that there are realistic possibilities to scale up the described approach and mass produce graphene-based membranes with required sieve sizes.”

Mr. Jijo Abraham and Dr. Vasu Siddeswara Kalangi were the joint-lead authors on the research paper: “The developed membranes are not only useful for desalination, but the atomic scale tunability of the pore size also opens new opportunity to fabricate membranes with on-demand filtration capable of filtering out ions according to their sizes.” said Mr. Abraham.

By 2025 the UN expects that 14% of the world’s population will encounter water scarcity. This technology has the potential to revolutionise water filtration across the world, in particular in countries which cannot afford large scale desalination plants.

It is hoped that graphene-oxide membrane systems can be built on smaller scales making this technology accessible to countries which do not have the financial infrastructure to fund large plants without compromising the yield of fresh water produced.

Courtesy of the University of Manchester

I believe the previous image is an artist’s rendering of the graphene-oxide membrane trapping salt as water moves through it.

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

Tunable sieving of ions using graphene oxide membranes by Jijo Abraham, Kalangi S. Vasu, Christopher D. Williams, Kalon Gopinadhan, Yang Su, Christie T. Cherian, James Dix, Eric Prestat, Sarah J. Haigh, Irina V. Grigorieva, Paola Carbone, Andre K. Geim, & Rahul R. Nair. Nature Nanotechnology (2017) doi:10.1038/nnano.2017.21 Published online 03 April 2017

This paper is open access provided you sign up (or have already signed up) for a free registration with nature.com.

Understanding nanotechnology with Timbits; a peculiarly Canadian explanation

For the uninitiated, Timbits are also known as donut holes. Tim Hortons, founded by ex-National Hockey League player Tim Horton who has since deceased, has taken hold in the Canada’s language and culture such that one of our scientists trying to to explain nanotechnology thought it would be best understood in terms of Timbits. From a Jan. 14, 2017 article (How nanotechnology could change our lives) by Vanessa Lu for thestar.com,

The future is all in the tiny.

Known as nanoparticles, these are the tiniest particles, so small that we can’t see them or even imagine how small they are.

University of Waterloo’s Frank Gu paints a picture of their scale.

“Take a Timbit and start slicing it into smaller and smaller pieces, so small that every Canadian — about 35 million of us — can hold a piece of the treat,” he said. “And those tiny pieces are still a little bigger than a nanoparticle.”

For years, consumers have seen the benefits of nanotechnology in everything from shrinking cellphones to ultrathin televisions. Apple’s iPhones have become more powerful as they have become smaller — where a chip now holds billions of transistors.

“As you go smaller, it creates less footprint and more power,” said Gu, who holds the Canada research chair in advanced targeted delivery systems. “FaceTime, Skype — they are all powered by nanotechnology, with their retina display.”

Lu wrote a second January 14, 2017 article (Researchers developing nanoparticles to purify water) for thestar.com,

When scientists go with their gut or act on a hunch, it can pay off.

For Tim Leshuk, a PhD student in nanotechnology at the University of Waterloo, he knew it was a long shot.

Leshuk had been working with Frank Gu, who leads a nanotechnology research group, on using tiny nanoparticles that have been tweaked with certain properties to purify contaminated water.

Leshuk was working on the process, treating dirty water such as that found in Alberta’s oilsands, with the nanoparticles combined with ultraviolet light. He wondered what might happen if exposed to actual sunlight.

“I didn’t have high hopes,” he said. “For the heck of it, I took some beakers out and put them on the roof. And when I came back, it was far more effective that we had seen with regular UV light.

“It was high-fives all around,” Leshuk said. “It’s not like a Brita filter or a sponge that just soaks up pollutants. It completely breaks them down.”

Things are accelerating quickly, with a spinoff company now formally created called H2nanO, with more ongoing tests scheduled. The research has drawn attention from oilsands companies, and [a] large pre-pilot project to be funded by the Canadian Oil Sands Innovation Alliance is due to get under way soon.

The excitement comes because it’s an entirely green process, converting solar energy for cleanup, and the nanoparticle material is reuseable, over and over.

It’s good to see a couple of articles about nanotechnology. The work by Tim Leshuk was highlighted here in a Dec. 1, 2015 posting titled:  New photocatalytic approach to cleaning wastewater from oil sands. I see the company wasn’t mentioned in the posting so, it must be new; you can find H2nanO here.

Discussion of a divisive topic: the Oilsands

As for the oilsands, it’s been an interesting few days with the Prime Minister’s (Justin Trudeau) suggestion that dependence would be phased out causing a furor of sorts. From a Jan. 13, 2017 article by James Wood for the Calgary Herald,

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s musings about phasing out the oilsands Friday [Jan. 13, 2017] were met with a barrage of criticism from Alberta’s conservative politicians and a pledge from Premier Rachel Notley that the province’s energy industry was “not going anywhere, any time soon.”

Asked at a town hall event in Peterborough [Ontario] about the federal government’s recent approval of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, Trudeau reiterated his longstanding remarks that he is attempting to balance economic and environmental concerns.

“We can’t shut down the oilsands tomorrow. We need to phase them out. We need to manage the transition off of our dependence on fossil fuels but it’s going to take time and in the meantime we have to manage that transition,” he added.

Northern Alberta’s oilsands are a prime target for environmentalists because of their significant output of greenhouse gas emissions linked to global climate change.

Trudeau, who will be in Calgary for a cabinet retreat on Jan. 23 and 24 [2017], also said again that it is the responsibility of the national government to get Canadian resources to market.

Meanwhile, Jane Fonda, Hollywood actress, weighed in on the issue of the Alberta oilsands with this (from a Jan. 11, 2017 article by Tristan Hopper for the National Post),

Fort McMurrayites might have assumed the celebrity visits would stop after the city was swept first by recession, and then by wildfire.

Or when the provincial government introduced a carbon tax and started phasing out coal.

And surely, with Donald Trump in the White House, even the oiliest corner of Canada would shift to the activist back burner.

But no; here comes Jane Fonda.

“We don’t need new pipelines,” she told a Wednesday [Jan. 11, 2017] press conference at the University of Alberta where she also dismissed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as a “good-looking Liberal” who couldn’t be trusted.

Saying that her voice was joined with the “Indigenous people of Canada,” Fonda explained her trip to Alberta by saying “when you’re famous you can help amplify the voices of people that can’t necessarily get a lot of press people to come out.”

Fonda is in Alberta at the invitation of Greenpeace, which has brought her here in support of the Treaty Alliance Against Tar Sands Expansion — a group of Canadian First Nations and U.S. tribes opposed to new pipelines to the Athabasca oilsands.

Appearing alongside Fonda, at a table with a sign reading “Respect Indigenous Decisions,” was Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, who, as leader of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, has led anti-pipeline protests and litigation in British Columbia.

“The future is going to be incredibly litigious,” he said in reference to the approved expansion of the Trans-Mountain pipeline.

The event also included Grand Chief Derek Nepinak of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, which is leading a legal challenge to federal approval of the Line 3 pipeline.

Although much of Athabasca’s oil production now comes from “steam-assisted gravity drainage” projects that requires minimal surface disturbance, on Tuesday Fonda took the requisite helicopter tour of a Fort McMurray-area open pit mine.

As you can see, there are not going to be any easy answers.

International news bits: Israel and Germany and Cuba and Iran

I have three news bits today.

Germany

From a Nov. 14, 2016 posting by Lynn L. Bergeson and Carla N. Hutton for The National Law Review (Note: A link has been removed),

The German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) recently published an English version of its Action Plan Nanotechnology 2020. Based on the success of the Action Plan Nanotechnology over the previous ten years, the federal government will continue the Action Plan Nanotechnology for the next five years.  Action Plan Nanotechnology 2020 is geared towards the priorities of the federal government’s new “High-Tech Strategy” (HTS), which has as its objective the solution of societal challenges by promoting research.  According to Action Plan Nanotechnology 2020, the results of a number of research projects “have shown that nanomaterials are not per se linked with a risk for people and the environment due to their nanoscale properties.”  Instead, this is influenced more by structure, chemical composition, and other factors, and is thus dependent on the respective material and its application.

A Nov. 16, 2016 posting on Out-Law.com provides mores detail about the plan (Note: A link has been removed),

Eight ministries have been responsible for producing a joint plan on nanotechnology every five years since 2006, the Ministry said. The ministries develop a common approach that pools strategies for action and fields of application for nanotechnology, it [Germany’s Federal Ministry of Education and Research] said.

The German public sector currently spends more than €600 million a year on nanotechnology related developments, and 2,200 organisations from industry, services, research and associations are registered in the Ministry’s nanotechnology competence map, the report said.

“There are currently also some 1,100 companies in Germany engaged [in] the use of nanotechnology in the fields of research and development as well as the marketing of commercial products and services. The proportion of SMEs [small to medium enterprises?] is around 75%,” it said.

Nanotechnology-based product innovations play “an increasingly important role in many areas of life, such as health and nutrition, the workplace, mobility and energy production”, and the plan “thus pursues the objective of continuing to exploit the opportunities and potential of nanotechnology in Germany, without disregarding any potential risks to humans and the environment.”, the Ministry said.

Technology law expert Florian von Baum of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com said: “The action plan aims to achieve and secure Germany’s critical lead in the still new nanotechnology field and to recognise and use the full potential of nanotechnology while taking into account possible risks and dangers of this new technology.”

..

“With the rapid pace of development and the new applications that emerge every day, the government needs to ensure that the dangers and risks are sufficiently recognised and considered. Nanotechnology will provide great and long-awaited breakthroughs in health and ecological areas, but ethical, legal and socio-economic issues must be assessed and evaluated at all stages of the innovation chain,” von Baum said.

You can find Germany’s Action Plan Nanotechnology 2020 here, all 64 pp.of it.

Israel and Germany

A Nov. 16, 2016 article by Shoshanna Solomon for The Times of Israel announces a new joint (Israel-Germany) nanotechnology fund,

Tsrael and Germany have set up a new three-year, €30 million plan to promote joint nanotechnology initiatives and are calling on companies and entities in both countries to submit proposals for funding for projects in this field.

“Nanotech is the industry of the future in global hi-tech and Israel has set a goal of becoming a leader of this field, while cooperating with leading European countries,” Ilan Peled, manager of Technological Infrastructure Arena at the Israel Innovation Authority, said in a statement announcing the plan.

In the past decade nanotechnology, seen by many as the tech field of the future, has focused mainly on research. Now, however, Israel’s Innovation Authority, which has set up the joint program with Germany, believes the next decade will focus on the application of this research into products — and countries are keen to set up the right ecosystem that will draw companies operating in this field to them.

Over the last decade, the country has focused on creating a “robust research foundation that can support a large industry,” the authority said, with six academic research institutes that are among the world’s most advanced.

In addition, the authority said, there are about 200 new startups that were established over the last decade in the field, many in the development stage.

I know it’s been over 70 years since the events of World War II but this does seem like an unexpected coupling. It is heartening to see that people can resolve the unimaginable within the space of a few generations.

Iran and Cuba

A Nov. 16, 2016 Mehr News Agency press release announces a new laboratory in Cuba,

Iran is ready to build a laboratory center equipped with nanotechnology in one of nano institutes in Cuba, Iran’s VP for Science and Technology Sorena Sattari said Tuesday [Nov. 15, 2016].

Sorena Sattari, Vice-President for Science and Technology, made the remark in a meeting with Fidel Castro Diaz-Balart, scientific adviser to the Cuban president, in Tehran on Tuesday [November 15, 2016], adding that Iran is also ready to present Cuba with a gifted package including educational services related to how to operate the equipment at the lab.

During the meeting, Sattari noted Iran’s various technological achievements including exports of biotechnological medicine to Russia, the extensive nanotechnology plans for high school and university students as well as companies, the presence of about 160 companies active in the field of nanotechnology and the country’s achievements in the field of water treatment.

“We have sealed good nano agreements with Cuba, and are ready to develop our technological cooperation with this country in the field of vaccines and recombinant drugs,” he said.

Sattari maintained that the biggest e-commerce company in the Middle East is situated in Iran, adding “the company which was only established six years ago now sales over $3.5 million in a day, and is even bigger than similar companies in Russia.”

The Cuban official, for his part, welcomed any kind of cooperation with Iran, and thanked the Islamic Republic for its generous proposal on establishing a nanotechnology laboratory in his country.

This coupling is not quite so unexpected as Iran has been cozying up to all kinds of countries in its drive to establish itself as a nanotechnology leader.

The character of water: both types

This is to use an old term, ‘mindblowing’. Apparently, there are two types of the liquid we call water according to a Nov. 10, 2016 news item on phys.org,

There are two types of liquid water, according to research carried out by an international scientific collaboration. This new peculiarity adds to the growing list of strange phenomena in what we imagine is a simple substance. The discovery could have implications for making and using nanoparticles as well as in understanding how proteins fold into their working shape in the body or misfold to cause diseases such as Alzheimer’s or CJD [Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease].

A Nov. 10, 2016 Inderscience Publishers news release, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

Writing in the International Journal of Nanotechnology, Oxford University’s Laura Maestro and her colleagues in Italy, Mexico, Spain and the USA, explain how the physical and chemical properties of water have been studied for more than a century and revealed some odd behavior not seen in other substances. For instance, when water freezes it expands. By contrast, almost every other known substance contracts when it is cooled. Water also exists as solid, liquid and gas within a very small temperature range (100 degrees Celsius) whereas the melting and boiling points of most other compounds span a much greater range.

Many of water’s bizarre properties are due to the molecule’s ability to form short-lived connections with each other known as hydrogen bonds. There is a residual positive charge on the hydrogen atoms in the V-shaped water molecule either or both of which can form such bonds with the negative electrons on the oxygen atom at the point of the V. This makes fleeting networks in water possible that are frozen in place when the liquid solidifies. They bonds are so short-lived that they do not endow the liquid with any structure or memory, of course.

The team has looked closely at several physical properties of water like its dielectric constant (how well an electric field can permeate a substance) or the proton-spin lattice relaxation (the process by which the magnetic moments of the hydrogen atoms in water can lose energy having been excited to a higher level). They have found that these phenomena seem to flip between two particular characters at around 50 degrees Celsius, give or take 10 degrees, i.e. from 40 to 60 degrees Celsius. The effect is that thermal expansion, speed of sound and other phenomena switch between two different states at this crossover temperature.

These two states could have important implications for studying and using nanoparticles where the character of water at the molecule level becomes important for the thermal and optical properties of such particles. Gold and silver nanoparticles are used in nanomedicine for diagnostics and as antibacterial agents, for instance. Moreover, the preliminary findings suggest that the structure of liquid water can strongly influence the stability of proteins and how they are denatured at the crossover temperature, which may well have implications for understanding protein processing in the food industry but also in understanding how disease arises when proteins misfold.

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

On the existence of two states in liquid water: impact on biological and nanoscopic systems
by L.M. Maestro, M.I. Marqués, E. Camarillo, D. Jaque, J. García Solé, J.A. Gonzalo, F. Jaque, Juan C. Del Valle, F. Mallamace, H.E. Stanley.
International Journal of Nanotechnology (IJNT), Vol. 13, No. 8/9, 2016 DOI: 10.1504/IJNT.2016.079670

This paper is behind a paywall.

Theoretical tool for understanding the fate of nano- and microplastic in rivers

An Oct. 17, 2016 news item on Nanowerk announced work being accomplished at Wageningen University (Netherlands),

Very tiny plastic particles of micro and nano size are difficult to measure in the environment to assess exposure risks. Researchers of Wageningen University & Research now provide the first mechanistic modelling study on the behaviour and fate of nano- and microplastic in surface waters.

Plastic debris has been detected in the oceans, in soils, sediments and surface waters worldwide. Emissions are expected to increase by an order of magnitude in the coming years. Fragmentation leads to smaller and smaller particles, eventually reaching the submicron scale. At these very small sizes, plastic particles may pose unforeseen risks. Yet they are hard to measure in the environment so that exposure assessments have to rely on modelling.

Wageningen researcher Ellen Besseling: “We already knew that microplastics are transported in rivers and can reach the sediment, potentially affecting aquatic life. Now we have a theoretical tool that helps us to understand why/how this happens and that helps us to explain what we see. This is important in order to design mitigation strategies for plastic debris of all sizes, and to predict emissions of plastics to our oceans.”

An Oct. 17, 2016 Wageningen University & Research press release, which originated the news item, provides more detail,

In their recent pioneering study published in the journal Environmental Pollution, Ellen Besseling and co-workers simulate the concentrations of plastic particles between 100 nm up to 10 mm for the hydrological flow regime of a real river. The model accounted for direct transport of the particles, but also for aggregation of the particles with natural suspended solids, and the transport and settling of the resulting so-called heteroaggregates. The model also accounted for the presence of biofilm on the plastics, and model scenarios were calculated for plastics of different density. “This provides very insightful results on where in the river bed the ‘hot spot’ locations for presence of nano- and microplastic can be expected,” says project leader Prof Bart Koelmans. No earlier models accounted for all of these processes, and some counterintuitive results were obtained. Settling to the sediment for instance, was important for nano- and microplastics smaller than one micrometer due to settling of aggregates, and for plastic particles bigger than fifty micrometer due to direct settling, but much less for sizes in between. This means that these particles are expected to be exported to sea to a larger extent.

Attachment efficiency
A key parameter in the model is the attachment efficiency, which is the chance that a colliding plastic and natural solid particle actually stick together. Because this parameter was not known, literature values were used taking non-polymer nanoparticles as a proxy for microplastic. These values, however, were used in combination with – also for the first time – new measured values for actual nano- and microplastics. These experimental data for aggregation of nano- and microplastic with suspended particles in natural freshwater appeared to fairly agree to the literature data. Whereas these first results are promising, the research team emphasizes that more research is needed to study the aggregation behaviour of nano- an microplastic in fresh and marine waters.

Risk assessment of plastic debris
The problem of plastic debris is high on the agenda of policymakers and the public, and society calls for an assessment of the risks of plastic debris to man and the environment. A risk assessment for nano- and microplastic requires an assessment of exposure, and of the effects caused by plastics, which then can be compared in a characterisation of actual risks for man and the environment. As long as analytical methods to detect plastic particles are still under construction, models provide invaluable tools to assess exposure to plastic of all sizes. Models can also be used to design monitoring networks and optimize sampling strategies by indicating ‘hot spot’ locations based on first principles. At Wageningen University & Research, several projects aim to develop tools for the risk assessment of plastic debris in marine as well as freshwaters, for instance the new STW-project TRAMP.

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

Fate of nano- and microplastic in freshwater systems: A modeling study by Ellen Besseling, Joris T.K. Quik, Muzhi Sun, Albert A. Koelmans. Environmental Pollution http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.envpol.2016.10.001 Available online 13 October 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.

Oil spill cleanup nanotechnology-enabled solution from A*STAR

A*STAR (Singapore’s Agency for Science Technology and Research) has developed a new technology for cleaning up oil spills according to an Oct. 11, 2016 news item on Nanowerk,

Oceanic oil spills are tough to clean up. They dye feathers a syrupy sepia and tan fish eggs a toxic tint. The more turbulent the waters, the farther the slick spreads, with inky droplets descending into the briny deep.

Now technology may be able to succeed where hard-working volunteers have failed in the past. Researchers at the A*STAR Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (IBN) are using nanotechnology to turn an oil spill into a floating mass of brown jelly that can be scooped up before it can make its way into the food chain.

“Nanoscience makes it possible to tailor the essential structures of materials at the nanometer scale to achieve specific properties,” says chemist Yugen Zhang at IBN, who is developing some of the technologies. “Structures and materials in the nanometer size range often take on distinctive properties that are not seen in other size ranges,” adds Huaqiang Zeng, another chemist at IBN.

An Oct. 11, 2016 A*STAR press release, which originated the news item, describes some of problematic solutions before describing the new technology,

There are many approaches to cleaning an oil spill, and none are completely effective. Fresh, thick grease can be set ablaze or contained by floating barriers for skimmers to scoop out. The slick can also be inefficiently hardened, messily absorbed, hazardously dispersed, or slowly consumed by oil-grazing bacteria. All of these are deficient on a large scale, especially in rough waters.

Organic molecules with special gelling abilities offer a cheap, simple and environmentally friendly alternative for cleaning up the mess. Zeng has developed several such molecules that turn crude oil into jelly within minutes.

To create his ‘supergelators’, Zeng designed the molecules to associate with each other without forming physical bonds. When sprayed on contaminated seawater, the molecules immediately bundle into long fibers between 40 and 800 nanometers wide. These threads create a web that traps the interspersed oil in a giant blob that floats on the water’s surface. The gunk can then be swiftly sieved out of the ocean. Valuable crude oil can later be reclaimed using a common technique employed by petroleum refineries called fractional distillation.

Zeng tested the supergelators on four types of crude oil with different densities, viscosities and sulfur levels in a small round dish. The results were impressive. “The supergelators solidified both freshly spilled crude oil and highly weathered crude oil 37 to 60 times their own weight,” says Zeng. The materials used to produce these organic molecules are cheap and non toxic, which make them a commercially viable solution for managing accidents out at sea. Zeng hopes to work with industrial partners to test the nanomolecules on a much larger scale.

Zeng and his colleagues have developed other other ‘water’ applications as well,

Unsalty water

Scientists at IBN are also using nanoscience to remove salt from seawater and heavy metals from contaminated water.

With dwindling global fresh and ground water reserves, many countries are looking to desalination as a viable source of drinking water. Desalination is expected to meet 30 per cent of the water demand of Singapore by 2060, which will mean tripling the country’s current desalination capacity. But desalination demands huge energy consumption and reverse osmosis, the mainstream technology it depends on, has a relatively high cost. Reverse osmosis works by using extreme pressures to squeeze water molecules through tightly knit membranes.

An emerging alternative solution mimics the way proteins embedded in cell membranes, known as aquaporins, channel water in and out. Some research groups have even created membranes made of fatty lipid molecules that can accommodate natural aquaporins. Zeng has developed a cheaper and more resilient replacement.

His building blocks consist of helical noodles with sticky ends that connect to form long spirals. Water molecules can flow through the 0.3 nanometer openings at the center of the spirals, but all the other positively and negatively charged ions that make up saltwater are too bulky to pass. These include sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, chlorine and sulfur oxide. “In water, all of these ions are highly hydrated, attached to lots of water molecules, which makes them too large to go through the channels,” says Zeng.

The technology could lead to global savings of up to US$5 billion a year, says Zeng, but only after several more years of testing and tweaking the lipid membrane’s compatibility and stability with the nanospirals. “This is a major focus in my group right now,” he says. “We want to get this done, so that we can reduce the cost of water desalination to an acceptable level.”

Stick and non-stick

Nanomaterials also offer a low-cost, effective and sustainable way to filter out toxic metals from drinking water.

Heavy metal levels in drinking water are stringently regulated due to the severe damage the substances can cause to health, even at very low concentrations. The World Health Organization requires that levels of lead, for example, remain below ten parts per billion (ppb). Treating water to these standards is expensive and extremely difficult.

Zhang has developed an organic substance filled with pores that can trap and remove toxic metals from water to less than one ppb. Each pore is ten to twenty nanometers wide and packed with compounds, known as amines that stick to the metals.

Exploiting the fact that amines lose their grip over the metals in acidic conditions, the valuable and limited resource can be recovered by industry, and the polymers reused.

The secret behind the success of Zhang’s polymers is the large surface area covered by the pores, which translates into more opportunities to interact with and trap the metals. “Other materials have a surface area of about 100 square meters per gram, but ours is 1,000 square meters per gram,” says Zhang. “It is 10 times higher.”

Zhang tested his nanoporous polymers on water contaminated with lead. He sprinkled a powdered version of the polymer into a slightly alkaline liquid containing close to 100 ppb of lead. Within seconds, lead levels reduced to below 0.2 ppb. Similar results were observed for cadmium, copper and palladium. Washing the polymers in acid released up to 93 per cent of the lead.

With many companies keen to scale these technologies for real-world applications, it won’t be long before nanoscience treats the Earth for its many maladies.

I wonder if the researchers have found industrial partners (who could be named) to bring these solutions for oil spill cleanups, desalination, and water purification to the market.

Powering up your graphene implants so you don’t get fried in the process

A Sept. 23, 2016 news item on phys.org describes a way of making graphene-based medical implants safer,

In the future, our health may be monitored and maintained by tiny sensors and drug dispensers, deployed within the body and made from graphene—one of the strongest, lightest materials in the world. Graphene is composed of a single sheet of carbon atoms, linked together like razor-thin chicken wire, and its properties may be tuned in countless ways, making it a versatile material for tiny, next-generation implants.

But graphene is incredibly stiff, whereas biological tissue is soft. Because of this, any power applied to operate a graphene implant could precipitously heat up and fry surrounding cells.

Now, engineers from MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] and Tsinghua University in Beijing have precisely simulated how electrical power may generate heat between a single layer of graphene and a simple cell membrane. While direct contact between the two layers inevitably overheats and kills the cell, the researchers found they could prevent this effect with a very thin, in-between layer of water.

A Sept. 23, 2016 MIT news release by Emily Chu, which originated the news item, provides more technical details,

By tuning the thickness of this intermediate water layer, the researchers could carefully control the amount of heat transferred between graphene and biological tissue. They also identified the critical power to apply to the graphene layer, without frying the cell membrane. …

Co-author Zhao Qin, a research scientist in MIT’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE), says the team’s simulations may help guide the development of graphene implants and their optimal power requirements.

“We’ve provided a lot of insight, like what’s the critical power we can accept that will not fry the cell,” Qin says. “But sometimes we might want to intentionally increase the temperature, because for some biomedical applications, we want to kill cells like cancer cells. This work can also be used as guidance [for those efforts.]”

Sandwich model

Typically, heat travels between two materials via vibrations in each material’s atoms. These atoms are always vibrating, at frequencies that depend on the properties of their materials. As a surface heats up, its atoms vibrate even more, causing collisions with other atoms and transferring heat in the process.

The researchers sought to accurately characterize the way heat travels, at the level of individual atoms, between graphene and biological tissue. To do this, they considered the simplest interface, comprising a small, 500-nanometer-square sheet of graphene and a simple cell membrane, separated by a thin layer of water.

“In the body, water is everywhere, and the outer surface of membranes will always like to interact with water, so you cannot totally remove it,” Qin says. “So we came up with a sandwich model for graphene, water, and membrane, that is a crystal clear system for seeing the thermal conductance between these two materials.”

Qin’s colleagues at Tsinghua University had previously developed a model to precisely simulate the interactions between atoms in graphene and water, using density functional theory — a computational modeling technique that considers the structure of an atom’s electrons in determining how that atom will interact with other atoms.

However, to apply this modeling technique to the group’s sandwich model, which comprised about half a million atoms, would have required an incredible amount of computational power. Instead, Qin and his colleagues used classical molecular dynamics — a mathematical technique based on a “force field” potential function, or a simplified version of the interactions between atoms — that enabled them to efficiently calculate interactions within larger atomic systems.

The researchers then built an atom-level sandwich model of graphene, water, and a cell membrane, based on the group’s simplified force field. They carried out molecular dynamics simulations in which they changed the amount of power applied to the graphene, as well as the thickness of the intermediate water layer, and observed the amount of heat that carried over from the graphene to the cell membrane.

Watery crystals

Because the stiffness of graphene and biological tissue is so different, Qin and his colleagues expected that heat would conduct rather poorly between the two materials, building up steeply in the graphene before flooding and overheating the cell membrane. However, the intermediate water layer helped dissipate this heat, easing its conduction and preventing a temperature spike in the cell membrane.

Looking more closely at the interactions within this interface, the researchers made a surprising discovery: Within the sandwich model, the water, pressed against graphene’s chicken-wire pattern, morphed into a similar crystal-like structure.

“Graphene’s lattice acts like a template to guide the water to form network structures,” Qin explains. “The water acts more like a solid material and makes the stiffness transition from graphene and membrane less abrupt. We think this helps heat to conduct from graphene to the membrane side.”

The group varied the thickness of the intermediate water layer in simulations, and found that a 1-nanometer-wide layer of water helped to dissipate heat very effectively. In terms of the power applied to the system, they calculated that about a megawatt of power per meter squared, applied in tiny, microsecond bursts, was the most power that could be applied to the interface without overheating the cell membrane.

Qin says going forward, implant designers can use the group’s model and simulations to determine the critical power requirements for graphene devices of different dimensions. As for how they might practically control the thickness of the intermediate water layer, he says graphene’s surface may be modified to attract a particular number of water molecules.

“I think graphene provides a very promising candidate for implantable devices,” Qin says. “Our calculations can provide knowledge for designing these devices in the future, for specific applications, like sensors, monitors, and other biomedical applications.”

This research was supported in part by the MIT International Science and Technology Initiative (MISTI): MIT-China Seed Fund, the National Natural Science Foundation of China, DARPA [US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency], the Department of Defense (DoD) Office of Naval Research, the DoD Multidisciplinary Research Initiatives program, the MIT Energy Initiative, and the National Science Foundation.

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

Intercalated water layers promote thermal dissipation at bio–nano interfaces by Yanlei Wang, Zhao Qin, Markus J. Buehler, & Zhiping Xu. Nature Communications 7, Article number: 12854 doi:10.1038/ncomms12854 Published 23 September 2016

This paper is open access.