Category Archives: nanotechnology

‘Neural dust’ could lead to introduction of electroceuticals

In case anyone is wondering, the woman who’s manipulating a prosthetic arm so she can eat or a drink of coffee probably has a bulky implant/docking station in her head. Right now that bulky implant is the latest and greatest innovation for tetraplegics (aka, quadriplegics) as it frees, to some extent, people who’ve had no independent movement of any kind. By virtue of the juxtaposition of the footage of the woman with the ‘neural dust’ footage, they seem to be suggesting that neural dust might some day accomplish the same type of connection. At this point, hopes for the ‘neural dust’ are more modest.

An Aug. 3, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily announces the ‘neural dust’,

University of California, Berkeley engineers have built the first dust-sized, wireless sensors that can be implanted in the body, bringing closer the day when a Fitbit-like device could monitor internal nerves, muscles or organs in real time.

Because these batteryless sensors could also be used to stimulate nerves and muscles, the technology also opens the door to “electroceuticals” to treat disorders such as epilepsy or to stimulate the immune system or tamp down inflammation.

An Aug. 3, 2016 University of California at Berkeley news release (also on EurekAlert) by Robert Sanders, which originated the news item, explains further and describes the researchers’ hope that one day the neural dust could be used to control implants and prosthetics,

The so-called neural dust, which the team implanted in the muscles and peripheral nerves of rats, is unique in that ultrasound is used both to power and read out the measurements. Ultrasound technology is already well-developed for hospital use, and ultrasound vibrations can penetrate nearly anywhere in the body, unlike radio waves, the researchers say.

“I think the long-term prospects for neural dust are not only within nerves and the brain, but much broader,“ said Michel Maharbiz, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences and one of the study’s two main authors. “Having access to in-body telemetry has never been possible because there has been no way to put something supertiny superdeep. But now I can take a speck of nothing and park it next to a nerve or organ, your GI tract or a muscle, and read out the data.“

Maharbiz, neuroscientist Jose Carmena, a professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences and a member of the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute, and their colleagues will report their findings in the August 3 [2016] issue of the journal Neuron.

The sensors, which the researchers have already shrunk to a 1 millimeter cube – about the size of a large grain of sand – contain a piezoelectric crystal that converts ultrasound vibrations from outside the body into electricity to power a tiny, on-board transistor that is in contact with a nerve or muscle fiber. A voltage spike in the fiber alters the circuit and the vibration of the crystal, which changes the echo detected by the ultrasound receiver, typically the same device that generates the vibrations. The slight change, called backscatter, allows them to determine the voltage.

Motes sprinkled thoughout the body

In their experiment, the UC Berkeley team powered up the passive sensors every 100 microseconds with six 540-nanosecond ultrasound pulses, which gave them a continual, real-time readout. They coated the first-generation motes – 3 millimeters long, 1 millimeter high and 4/5 millimeter thick – with surgical-grade epoxy, but they are currently building motes from biocompatible thin films which would potentially last in the body without degradation for a decade or more.

While the experiments so far have involved the peripheral nervous system and muscles, the neural dust motes could work equally well in the central nervous system and brain to control prosthetics, the researchers say. Today’s implantable electrodes degrade within 1 to 2 years, and all connect to wires that pass through holes in the skull. Wireless sensors – dozens to a hundred – could be sealed in, avoiding infection and unwanted movement of the electrodes.

“The original goal of the neural dust project was to imagine the next generation of brain-machine interfaces, and to make it a viable clinical technology,” said neuroscience graduate student Ryan Neely. “If a paraplegic wants to control a computer or a robotic arm, you would just implant this electrode in the brain and it would last essentially a lifetime.”

In a paper published online in 2013, the researchers estimated that they could shrink the sensors down to a cube 50 microns on a side – about 2 thousandths of an inch, or half the width of a human hair. At that size, the motes could nestle up to just a few nerve axons and continually record their electrical activity.

“The beauty is that now, the sensors are small enough to have a good application in the peripheral nervous system, for bladder control or appetite suppression, for example,“ Carmena said. “The technology is not really there yet to get to the 50-micron target size, which we would need for the brain and central nervous system. Once it’s clinically proven, however, neural dust will just replace wire electrodes. This time, once you close up the brain, you’re done.“

The team is working now to miniaturize the device further, find more biocompatible materials and improve the surface transceiver that sends and receives the ultrasounds, ideally using beam-steering technology to focus the sounds waves on individual motes. They are now building little backpacks for rats to hold the ultrasound transceiver that will record data from implanted motes.

They’re also working to expand the motes’ ability to detect non-electrical signals, such as oxygen or hormone levels.

“The vision is to implant these neural dust motes anywhere in the body, and have a patch over the implanted site send ultrasonic waves to wake up and receive necessary information from the motes for the desired therapy you want,” said Dongjin Seo, a graduate student in electrical engineering and computer sciences. “Eventually you would use multiple implants and one patch that would ping each implant individually, or all simultaneously.”

Ultrasound vs radio

Maharbiz and Carmena conceived of the idea of neural dust about five years ago, but attempts to power an implantable device and read out the data using radio waves were disappointing. Radio attenuates very quickly with distance in tissue, so communicating with devices deep in the body would be difficult without using potentially damaging high-intensity radiation.

Marharbiz hit on the idea of ultrasound, and in 2013 published a paper with Carmena, Seo and their colleagues describing how such a system might work. “Our first study demonstrated that the fundamental physics of ultrasound allowed for very, very small implants that could record and communicate neural data,” said Maharbiz. He and his students have now created that system.

“Ultrasound is much more efficient when you are targeting devices that are on the millimeter scale or smaller and that are embedded deep in the body,” Seo said. “You can get a lot of power into it and a lot more efficient transfer of energy and communication when using ultrasound as opposed to electromagnetic waves, which has been the go-to method for wirelessly transmitting power to miniature implants”

“Now that you have a reliable, minimally invasive neural pickup in your body, the technology could become the driver for a whole gamut of applications, things that today don’t even exist,“ Carmena said.

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

Wireless Recording in the Peripheral Nervous System with Ultrasonic Neural Dust by Dongjin Seo, Ryan M. Neely, Konlin Shen, Utkarsh Singhal, Elad Alon, Jan M. Rabaey, Jose M. Carmena. and Michel M. Maharbiz. Neuron Volume 91, Issue 3, p529–539, 3 August 2016 DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.neuron.2016.06.034

This paper appears to be open access.

Being solid and liquid over a range of 1000 degrees Fahrenheit means it’s perpetual ice

Duke University researchers along with their international collaborators have made an extraordinary observation. From an Aug. 3, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily,

Imagine pouring a glass of ice water and having the ice cubes remain unchanged hours later, even under a broiler’s heat or in the very back corner of the freezer.

That’s fundamentally the surprising discovery recently made by an international group of researchers led by an electrical engineering professor at Duke University in a paper published online in Nature Matter on July 25, 2016. But instead of a refreshing mixture of H2O in a pint glass, the researchers were working with the chemical element gallium on a nanoscopic scale.

This image shows a single gallium nanoparticle sitting on top of a sapphire base. The black sphere in the center reveals the presence of solid gallium within the liquid drop exterior. The sapphire base is important, as it is rigid with a relatively high surface energy. As the nanoparticle and sapphire try to minimize their total energy, this combination of properties drives the formation and coexistence of the two phases. Courtesy: Duke University

This image shows a single gallium nanoparticle sitting on top of a sapphire base. The black sphere in the center reveals the presence of solid gallium within the liquid drop exterior. The sapphire base is important, as it is rigid with a relatively high surface energy. As the nanoparticle and sapphire try to minimize their total energy, this combination of properties drives the formation and coexistence of the two phases. Courtesy: Duke University

An Aug. 3, 2016 Duke University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, explains more about gallium and about this new state,

Gallium is a soft, silvery bluish metal at room temperature. Raise the heat to 86 degrees Fahrenheit, however, and it melts. Drop the temperature to subzero levels, and it becomes hard and brittle. But when gallium nanoparticles sit on top of a sapphire surface, they form a solid core surrounded by a liquid outer layer. The discovery marks the first time that this stable phase coexistence phenomenon at the nanoscale has ever been directly observed.

“This odd combination of a liquid and solid state existing together has been predicted theoretically and observed indirectly in other materials in narrow bands of specific temperatures,” said April Brown, the John Cocke Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Duke. “But this finding was very unexpected, especially because of its stability over such a large temperature range.”

The temperature range Brown is referring to covers more than 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, all the way from -135 to 980 degrees.

“At a fundamental level, this finding reveals the need to reconsider all our presumptions about solid–liquid equilibrium,” wrote Andrés Aguado, professor of theoretical, atomic and optical physics at the University of Valladolid in Spain, in a News and Views piece appearing in the same edition of Nature Matter. “At a more applied level, the results hold much promise for future nanotechnology applications.”

Gallium is an important element in electronics and is used in microwave circuits, high-speed switching circuits and infrared circuits. The discovery of this novel part-solid, part-liquid nanoparticle phase could be useful in ultraviolet sensors, molecular sensing devices and enhanced photodetectors.

Brown hopes this work is just the tip of the iceberg, as she is planning on creating a facility at Duke to investigate what other nanoparticles might have similar unexpected phase qualities.

The research was conducted in conjunction with researchers at the Institute of Nanotechnology-CNR-Italy, the University of Western Australia, the University of Melbourne and Johannes Kepler University Linz.

This is an atomic view of liquid and solid gallium coexisting in a single nanoparticle taken by a transmission electron microscope. The circular shape on the left-hand side shows gallium atoms in an organized, crystalline, solid structure, while the atoms on the right are in liquid form, showing no organized structure at all. Courtesy: Duke University

This is an atomic view of liquid and solid gallium coexisting in a single nanoparticle taken by a transmission electron microscope. The circular shape on the left-hand side shows gallium atoms in an organized, crystalline, solid structure, while the atoms on the right are in liquid form, showing no organized structure at all. Courtesy: Duke University

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

Thermally stable coexistence of liquid and solid phases in gallium nanoparticles by Maria Losurdo, Alexandra Suvorova, Sergey Rubanov, Kurt Hingerl, & April S. Brown.  Nature Materials (2016) doi:10.1038/nmat4705 Published online 25 July 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.

Vitamin-driven lithium-ion battery from the University of Toronto

It seems vitamins aren’t just good for health, they’re also good for batteries. My Aug. 2, 2016 post on vitamins and batteries focused on work from Harvard, this time the work is from the University of Toronto (Canada). From an Aug. 3, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily,

A team of University of Toronto chemists has created a battery that stores energy in a biologically derived unit, paving the way for cheaper consumer electronics that are easier on the environment.

The battery is similar to many commercially-available high-energy lithium-ion batteries with one important difference. It uses flavin from vitamin B2 as the cathode: the part that stores the electricity that is released when connected to a device.

“We’ve been looking to nature for a while to find complex molecules for use in a number of consumer electronics applications,” says Dwight Seferos, an associate professor in U of T’s Department of Chemistry and Canada Research Chair in Polymer Nanotechnology.

“When you take something made by nature that is already complex, you end up spending less time making new material,” says Seferos.

An Aug. 2, 2016 University of Toronto news release (also on EurekAlert) by Peter McMahon, which originated the news item, explains further,

To understand the discovery, it’s important to know that modern batteries contain three basic parts:

  • a positive terminal – the metal part that touches devices to power them – connected to a cathode inside the battery casing
  • a negative terminal connected to an anode inside the battery casing
  • an electrolyte solution, in which ions can travel between the cathode and anode electrodes

When a battery is connected to a phone, iPod, camera or other device that requires power, electrons flow from the anode – the negatively charged electrode of the device supplying current – out to the device, then into the cathode and ions migrate through the electrolyte solution to balance the charge. When connected to a charger, this process happens in reverse.

The reaction in the anode creates electrons and the reaction in the cathode absorbs them when discharging. The net product is electricity. The battery will continue to produce electricity until one or both of the electrodes run out of the substance necessary for the reactions to occur.

Organic chemistry is kind of like Lego

While bio-derived battery parts have been created previously, this is the first one that uses bio-derived polymers – long-chain molecules – for one of the electrodes, essentially allowing battery energy to be stored in a vitamin-created plastic, instead of costlier, harder to process, and more environmentally-harmful metals such as cobalt.

“Getting the right material evolved over time and definitely took some test reactions,” says paper co-author and doctoral student Tyler Schon. “In a lot of ways, it looked like this could have failed. It definitely took a lot of perseverance.”

Schon, Seferos and colleagues happened upon the material while testing a variety of long-chain polymers – specifically pendant group polymers: the molecules attached to a ‘backbone’ chain of a long molecule.

“Organic chemistry is kind of like Lego,” he says. “You put things together in a certain order, but some things that look like they’ll fit together on paper don’t in reality. We tried a few approaches and the fifth one worked,” says Seferos.

Building a better power pack

The team created the material from vitamin B2 that originates in genetically-modified fungi using a semi-synthetic process to prepare the polymer by linking two flavin units to a long-chain molecule backbone.

This allows for a green battery with high capacity and high voltage – something increasingly important as the ‘Internet of Things’ continues to link us together more and more through our battery-powered portable devices.

“It’s a pretty safe, natural compound,” Seferos adds. “If you wanted to, you could actually eat the source material it comes from.”

B2’s ability to be reduced and oxidized makes its well-suited for a lithium ion battery.

“B2 can accept up to two electrons at a time,” says Seferos. “This makes it easy to take multiple charges and have a high capacity compared to a lot of other available molecules.”

A step to greener electronics

“It’s been a lot of trial-and-error,” says Schon. “Now we’re looking to design new variants that can be recharged again and again.”

While the current prototype is on the scale of a hearing aid battery, the team hopes their breakthrough could lay the groundwork for powerful, thin, flexible, and even transparent metal-free batteries that could support the next wave of consumer electronics.

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

Bio-Derived Polymers for Sustainable Lithium-Ion Batteries by Tyler B. Schon, Andrew J. Tilley, Colin R. Bridges, Mark B. Miltenburg, and Dwight S. Seferos. Advanced Functional Materials DOI: 10.1002/adfm.201602114 Version of Record online: 14 JUL 2016

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

This paper is behind a paywall.

Protecting soldiers from biological and chemical agents with a ‘second skin’ made of carbon nanotubes

There are lots of ‘second skins’ which promise to protect against various chemical and biological agents, the big plus for this ‘skin’ from the US Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is breathability. From an Aug. 3, 2016 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

This material is the first key component of futuristic smart uniforms that also will respond to and protect from environmental chemical hazards. The research appears in the July 27 [2016] edition of the journal, , Advanced Materials (“Carbon Nanotubes: Ultrabreathable and Protective Membranes with Sub-5 nm Carbon Nanotube Pores”).

An Aug. 3, 2016 Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, explains further (Note: Links have been removed),

High breathability is a critical requirement for protective clothing to prevent heat-stress and exhaustion when military personnel are engaged in missions in contaminated environments. Current protective military uniforms are based on heavyweight full-barrier protection or permeable adsorptive protective garments that cannot meet the critical demand of simultaneous high comfort and protection, and provide a passive rather than active response to an environmental threat.

The LLNL team fabricated flexible polymeric membranes with aligned carbon nanotube (CNT) channels as moisture conductive pores. The size of these pores (less than 5 nanometers, nm) is 5,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair [if 1 nm is 1/100,000 or 1/60,000 of a human hair {the two most commonly used measurements} then wouldn’t 5 nm be between 1/20,000 or1/15,000 of a human hair?] .

“We demonstrated that these membranes provide rates of water vapor transport that surpass those of commercial breathable fabrics like GoreTex, even though the CNT pores are only a few nanometers wide,” said Ngoc Bui, the lead author of the paper.

To provide high breathability, the new composite material takes advantage of the unique transport properties of carbon nanotube pores. By quantifying the membrane permeability to water vapor, the team found for the first time that, when a concentration gradient is used as a driving force, CNT nanochannels can sustain gas-transport rates exceeding that of a well-known diffusion theory by more than one order of magnitude.

These membranes also provide protection from biological agents due to their very small pore size — less than 5 nanometers (nm) wide. Biological threats like bacteria or viruses are much larger and typically more than 10-nm in size. Performed tests demonstrated that the CNT membranes repelled Dengue virus from aqueous solutions during filtration tests. This confirms that LLNL-developed CNT membranes provide effective protection from biological threats by size exclusion rather than by merely preventing wetting.

Furthermore, the results show that CNT pores combine high breathability and bio-protection in a single functional material.

However, chemical agents are much smaller in size and require the membrane pores to be able to react to block the threat. To encode the membrane with a smart and dynamic response to small chemical hazards, LLNL scientists and collaborators are surface modifying these prototype carbon nanotube membranes with chemical-threat-responsive functional groups. These functional groups will sense and block the threat like gatekeepers on the pore entrance. A second response scheme also is in development — similar to how living skin peels off when challenged with dangerous external factors. The fabric will exfoliate upon reaction with the chemical agent.

“The material will be like a smart second skin that responds to the environment,” said Kuang Jen Wu, leader of LLNL’s Biosecurity & Biosciences Group. “In this way, the fabric will be able to block chemical agents such as sulfur mustard (blister agent), GD and VX nerve agents, toxins such as staphylococcal enterotoxin and biological spores such as anthrax.”

Current work is directed toward designing this multifunctional material to undergo a rapid transition from the breathable state to the protective state.

“These responsive membranes are expected to be particularly effective in mitigating a physiological burden because a less breathable but protective state can be actuated locally and only when needed,” said Francesco Fornasiero, LLNL’s principal investigator of the project.

The new uniforms could be deployed in the field in less than 10 years.

“The goal of this science and technology program is to develop a focused, innovative technological solution for future chemical biological defense protective clothing,” said Tracee Whitfield, the DTRA [US Defense Threat Reduction Agency] science and technology manager for the Dynamic Multifunctional Material for a Second Skin Program. “Swatch-level evaluations will occur in early 2018 to demonstrate the concept of ‘second skin,’ a major milestone that is a key step in the maturation of this technology.”

The researchers have prepared a video describing their work,

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

Ultrabreathable and Protective Membranes with Sub-5 nm Carbon Nanotube Pores by Ngoc Bui, Eric R. Meshot, Sangil Kim, José Peña, Phillip W. Gibson, Kuang Jen Wu, and Francesco Fornasiero. Advanced Materials Volume 28, Issue 28, pages 5871–5877, July 27, 2016 DOI: 10.1002/adma.201600740 Version of Record online: 9 MAY 2016

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

This paper is behind a paywall.

Better contrast agents for magnetic resonance imaging with nanoparticles

I wonder what’s going on in the field of magnetic resonance imaging. This is the third news item I’ve stumbled across related to the topic in the last couple of months. (Links to the other two posts follow at the end of this post.) By comparison, that’s the more than in the previous seven years (2008 – 2015) combined.

The latest research concerns a new and better contrast agent. From an Aug. 3, 2016 news item on Nanowerk,

Scientists at the University of Basel [Switzerland] have developed nanoparticles which can serve as efficient contrast agents for magnetic resonance imaging. This new type of nanoparticles [sic] produce around ten times more contrast than the actual contrast agents and are responsive to specific environments.

An Aug. 3, 2016 University of Basel press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, explains further,

Contrast agents are usually based on the metal Gadolinium, which is injected and serves for an improved imaging of various organs in an MRI. Gadolinium ions should be bound with a carrier compound to avoid the toxicity to the human body of the free ions. Therefore, highly efficient contrast agents requiring lower Gadolinium concentrations represent an important step for advancing diagnosis and improving patient health prognosis.

Smart nanoparticles as contrast agents

The research groups of Prof. Cornelia Palivan and Prof. Wolfgang Meier from the Department of Chemistry at the University of Basel have introduced a new type of nanoparticles [sic], which combine multiple properties required for contrast agents: an increased MRI contrast for lower concentration, a potential for long blood circulation and responsiveness to different biochemical environments. These nanoparticles were obtained by co-assembly of heparin-functionalized polymers with trapped gadolinium ions and stimuli-responsive peptides.

The study shows, that the nanoparticles have the capacity of enhancing the MRI signal tenfold higher than the current agents. In addition, they have an enhanced efficacy in reductive milieu, characteristic for specific regions, such as cancerous tissues. These nanoparticles fulfill numerous key criteria for further development, such as absence of cellular toxicity, no apparent anticoagulation property, and high shelf stability. The concept developed by the researchers at the University of Basel to produce better contrast agents based on nanoparticles highlights a new direction in the design of MRI contrast agents, and supports their implementation for future applications.

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

Nanoparticle-based highly sensitive MRI contrast agents with enhanced relaxivity in reductive milieu by
Severin J. Sigg, Francesco Santini, Adrian Najer, Pascal U. Richard, Wolfgang P. Meier, and Cornelia G. Palivan. Chem. Commun., 2016,52, 9937-9940 DOI: 10.1039/C6CC03396B First published online 13 Jul 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.

The other two MRI items featured here are in a June 10, 2016 posting (pH dependent nanoparticle-based contrast agent for MRIs [magnetic resonance images]) and in an Aug. 1, 2016 posting (Nuclear magnetic resonance microscope breaks records).

US white paper on neuromorphic computing (or the nanotechnology-inspired Grand Challenge for future computing)

The US has embarked on a number of what is called “Grand Challenges.” I first came across the concept when reading about the Bill and Melinda Gates (of Microsoft fame) Foundation. I gather these challenges are intended to provide funding for research that advances bold visions.

There is the US National Strategic Computing Initiative established on July 29, 2015 and its first anniversary results were announced one year to the day later. Within that initiative a nanotechnology-inspired Grand Challenge for Future Computing was issued and, according to a July 29, 2016 news item on Nanowerk, a white paper on the topic has been issued (Note: A link has been removed),

Today [July 29, 2016), Federal agencies participating in the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) released a white paper (pdf) describing the collective Federal vision for the emerging and innovative solutions needed to realize the Nanotechnology-Inspired Grand Challenge for Future Computing.

The grand challenge, announced on October 20, 2015, is to “create a new type of computer that can proactively interpret and learn from data, solve unfamiliar problems using what it has learned, and operate with the energy efficiency of the human brain.” The white paper describes the technical priorities shared by the agencies, highlights the challenges and opportunities associated with these priorities, and presents a guiding vision for the research and development (R&D) needed to achieve key technical goals. By coordinating and collaborating across multiple levels of government, industry, academia, and nonprofit organizations, the nanotechnology and computer science communities can look beyond the decades-old approach to computing based on the von Neumann architecture and chart a new path that will continue the rapid pace of innovation beyond the next decade.

A July 29, 2016 US National Nanotechnology Coordination Office news release, which originated the news item, further and succinctly describes the contents of the paper,

“Materials and devices for computing have been and will continue to be a key application domain in the field of nanotechnology. As evident by the R&D topics highlighted in the white paper, this challenge will require the convergence of nanotechnology, neuroscience, and computer science to create a whole new paradigm for low-power computing with revolutionary, brain-like capabilities,” said Dr. Michael Meador, Director of the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office. …

The white paper was produced as a collaboration by technical staff at the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Intelligence Community. …

The white paper titled “A Federal Vision for Future Computing: A Nanotechnology-Inspired Grand Challenge” is 15 pp. and it offers tidbits such as this (Note: Footnotes not included),

A new materials base may be needed for future electronic hardware. While most of today’s electronics use silicon, this approach is unsustainable if billions of disposable and short-lived sensor nodes are needed for the coming Internet-of-Things (IoT). To what extent can the materials base for the implementation of future information technology (IT) components and systems support sustainability through recycling and bio-degradability? More sustainable materials, such as compostable or biodegradable systems (polymers, paper, etc.) that can be recycled or reused,  may play an important role. The potential role for such alternative materials in the fabrication of integrated systems needs to be explored as well. [p. 5]

The basic architecture of computers today is essentially the same as those built in the 1940s—the von Neumann architecture—with separate compute, high-speed memory, and high-density storage components that are electronically interconnected. However, it is well known that continued performance increases using this architecture are not feasible in the long term, with power density constraints being one of the fundamental roadblocks.7 Further advances in the current approach using multiple cores, chip multiprocessors, and associated architectures are plagued by challenges in software and programming models. Thus,  research and development is required in radically new and different computing architectures involving processors, memory, input-output devices, and how they behave and are interconnected. [p. 7]

Neuroscience research suggests that the brain is a complex, high-performance computing system with low energy consumption and incredible parallelism. A highly plastic and flexible organ, the human brain is able to grow new neurons, synapses, and connections to cope with an ever-changing environment. Energy efficiency, growth, and flexibility occur at all scales, from molecular to cellular, and allow the brain, from early to late stage, to never stop learning and to act with proactive intelligence in both familiar and novel situations. Understanding how these mechanisms work and cooperate within and across scales has the potential to offer tremendous technical insights and novel engineering frameworks for materials, devices, and systems seeking to perform efficient and autonomous computing. This research focus area is the most synergistic with the national BRAIN Initiative. However, unlike the BRAIN Initiative, where the goal is to map the network connectivity of the brain, the objective here is to understand the nature, methods, and mechanisms for computation,  and how the brain performs some of its tasks. Even within this broad paradigm,  one can loosely distinguish between neuromorphic computing and artificial neural network (ANN) approaches. The goal of neuromorphic computing is oriented towards a hardware approach to reverse engineering the computational architecture of the brain. On the other hand, ANNs include algorithmic approaches arising from machinelearning,  which in turn could leverage advancements and understanding in neuroscience as well as novel cognitive, mathematical, and statistical techniques. Indeed, the ultimate intelligent systems may as well be the result of merging existing ANN (e.g., deep learning) and bio-inspired techniques. [p. 8]

As government documents go, this is quite readable.

For anyone interested in learning more about the future federal plans for computing in the US, there is a July 29, 2016 posting on the White House blog celebrating the first year of the US National Strategic Computing Initiative Strategic Plan (29 pp. PDF; awkward but that is the title).

Selecta Biosciences’ proprietary tolerogenic nanoparticles improve efficacy and safety of biologic drugs

Although it may not seem like it initially, there is a nanotechnology element to this piece of news. From an Aug. 1, 2016 news item on Nanotechnology Now ,

Selecta Biosciences, Inc. (NASDAQ: SELB), a clinical-stage biopharmaceutical company developing targeted antigen-specific immune therapies for rare and serious diseases, announced today that Nature Nanotechnology has published an article that presents preclinical results from Selecta’s research which demonstrate the broad potential applicability of Selecta’s novel immune tolerance platform. Details that elucidate the mechanism of action of the company’s immune tolerance therapy, SVP [Synthetic Vaccine Particle]-Rapamycin (SEL-110), were also shown. Data in the publication support the Company’s lead clinical program, showing Selecta’s SVP-Rapamycin (SEL-110) induces antigen-specific immune tolerance and mitigates the formation of anti-drug antibodies (ADAs) to biologic drugs, including pegsiticase (for gout) and adalimumab (for rheumatoid arthritis).

An Aug. 1, 2016 Selecta Biosciences news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more information,

“Undesired immune responses affect both the efficacy and safety of marketed biologic therapies and the development of otherwise promising new technologies. Selecta’s SVP platform positions the company to enhance biologic therapy and to advance a pipeline of proprietary products that meet the therapeutic needs of patients with rare and serious diseases,” said Werner Cautreels, PhD,Chairman of the Board, CEO and President of Selecta Biosciences. “This publication in Nature Nanotechnology highlights the mechanism by which Selecta’s proprietary nanoparticles induce lasting antigen-specific tolerance. We believe that SVP-Rapamycin has the potential to mitigate ADAs against a broad range of biologic therapies.”

In the Nature Nanotechnology journal article, Selecta presents validation of the immune tolerance mechanism of action of the company’s technology, demonstrating that poly(lactic-co-glycolic acid) (PLGA) nanoparticles encapsulating rapamycin, but not free rapamycin, are capable of inducing durable immunological tolerance to co-administered proteins. This robust immune tolerance is characterized immunologically by: (1) induction of tolerogenic dendritic cells; (2) an increase in regulatory T cells; (3) reduction in B cell activation and germinal center formation; and (4) inhibition of antigen-specific hypersensitivity reactions.

Data presented in the journal article support the Company’s clinical lead program in gout, showing that intravenous co-administration of tolerogenic nanoparticles with pegylated uricase inhibited the formation of ADAs in mice and nonhuman primates and normalized serum uric acid levels in uricase-deficient mice. Underscoring the broad potential of the approach, results additionally show that subcutaneous co-administration of nanoparticles with adalimumab durably inhibited ADAs, resulting in normalized pharmacokinetics of the anti-TNFα antibody and protection against arthritis in TNFα transgenic mice.

In the published research, the induction of specific immune tolerance by SVP-Rapamycin (SEL-110) versus chronic immune suppression is supported by the findings that: (1) antigen must be co-administered at the time of SVP-Rapamycin (SEL-110) treatment; (2) immune tolerance is durable to many challenges of antigen alone; (3) animals tolerized to a specific antigen are capable of responding to an unrelated antigen, meaning that SVP-Rapamycin (SEL-110) does not induce a broad immune suppression; and (4) activation of naïve T cells is inhibited when adoptively transferred into previously tolerized mice. In contrast, daily administration of free rapamycin, at five times the total weekly rapamycin dose as that administered in the SVP-Rapamycin, was observed to transiently suppress the immune response, but did not induce durable immunological tolerance.

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

Improving the efficacy and safety of biologic drugs with tolerogenic nanoparticles by Takashi K. Kishimoto, Joseph D. Ferrari, Robert A. LaMothe, Pallavi N. Kolte, Aaron P. Griset, Conlin O’Neil, Victor Chan, Erica Browning, Aditi Chalishazar, William Kuhlman, Fen-ni Fu, Nelly Viseux, David H. Altreuter, Lloyd Johnston, & Roberto A. Maldonado. Nature Nanotechnology (2016)  doi:10.1038/nnano.2016.135 Published online 01 August 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.

Self-cleaning textiles and waterless toilets in our nanotechnology-enabled future

Whoever wrote the headline for an Aug. 1, 2016 article about our nanotechnology-enabled future by Jason Lam (headlines are not always written by the author) for South China Morning Post had some fun with words, “Scientists are flushed with success: sunshine to replace the need to wash clothes, while toilets will no longer need water,” (Note: A link has been removed)

Self-cleaning textiles are being explored at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. In this pioneering technology, researchers have been growing nanostructures on cotton fabric which, when exposed to light, release a burst of energy that then degrades organic matter. So a little ray or sunshine – or even a light bulb – could, in effect, clean your clothes for you.

As the scientists explain it, the nanostructure is metal-based, so it can absorb visible light. This creates energy, which is able to degrade organic matter on which it is present [the textile], “so that’s how it’ll get rid of stains”.

Tests on stains have proven promising, say the scientists, with results achieved within between six and 30 minutes of light exposure, depending on the material. The research is now moving on to sweat testing.

Stain-free fabrics have been around for a while, but they haven’t felt as comfortable as traditional textiles. Dropel Fabrics, a creator of hydrophobic natural textiles, is working to overcome that. It has developed a patented nanotechnology process infuses cotton fibres with water, stain, and odour repellent properties, while maintaining, the company says, the textile’s softness and breathability.

Apparently, it involves a “simple process” which encapsulates polymers within the textile fibres, and creates a protective layer. Invisible to the hand and eye, this protective layer does not affect the fabric’s texture, so its softness and construction is maintained. The company says it is exploring partnerships with high-end fashion brands.

Two Mexican industrial designers are working on their own solution for a waterless toilet, this time designed for urban areas. Reasoning that even some apartment dwellers have no access to sewage, their concept turns human waste into greywater which can safely be disposed of down the household drain.

I’m glad to have found Lam’s article as getting the perspective from Asia helps to balance this US-, Canada-, Euro-, and UK-centric science blog.

Deriving graphene-like films from salt

This research comes from Russia (mostly). A July 29, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily describes a graphene-like structure derived from salt,

Researchers from Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT), Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology (Skoltech), the Technological Institute for Superhard and Novel Carbon Materials (TISNCM), the National University of Science and Technology MISiS (Russia), and Rice University (USA) used computer simulations to find how thin a slab of salt has to be in order for it to break up into graphene-like layers. Based on the computer simulation, they derived the equation for the number of layers in a crystal that will produce ultrathin films with applications in nanoelectronics. …

Caption: Transition from a cubic arrangement into several hexagonal layers. Credit: authors of the study

Caption: Transition from a cubic arrangement into several hexagonal layers. Credit: authors of the study

A July 29, 2016 Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology press release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item,  provides more technical detail,

From 3D to 2D

Unique monoatomic thickness of graphene makes it an attractive and useful material. Its crystal lattice resembles a honeycombs, as the bonds between the constituent atoms form regular hexagons. Graphene is a single layer of a three-dimensional graphite crystal and its properties (as well as properties of any 2D crystal) are radically different from its 3D counterpart. Since the discovery of graphene, a large amount of research has been directed at new two-dimensional materials with intriguing properties. Ultrathin films have unusual properties that might be useful for applications such as nano- and microelectronics.

Previous theoretical studies suggested that films with a cubic structure and ionic bonding could spontaneously convert to a layered hexagonal graphitic structure in what is known as graphitisation. For some substances, this conversion has been experimentally observed. It was predicted that rock salt NaCl can be one of the compounds with graphitisation tendencies. Graphitisation of cubic compounds could produce new and promising structures for applications in nanoelectronics. However, no theory has been developed that would account for this process in the case of an arbitrary cubic compound and make predictions about its conversion into graphene-like salt layers.

For graphitisation to occur, the crystal layers need to be reduced along the main diagonal of the cubic structure. This will result in one crystal surface being made of sodium ions Na? and the other of chloride ions Cl?. It is important to note that positive and negative ions (i.e. Na? and Cl?)–and not neutral atoms–occupy the lattice points of the structure. This generates charges of opposite signs on the two surfaces. As long as the surfaces are remote from each other, all charges cancel out, and the salt slab shows a preference for a cubic structure. However, if the film is made sufficiently thin, this gives rise to a large dipole moment due to the opposite charges of the two crystal surfaces. The structure seeks to get rid of the dipole moment, which increases the energy of the system. To make the surfaces charge-neutral, the crystal undergoes a rearrangement of atoms.

Experiment vs model

To study how graphitisation tendencies vary depending on the compound, the researchers examined 16 binary compounds with the general formula AB, where A stands for one of the four alkali metals lithium Li, sodium Na, potassium K, and rubidium Rb. These are highly reactive elements found in Group 1 of the periodic table. The B in the formula stands for any of the four halogens fluorine F, chlorine Cl, bromine Br, and iodine I. These elements are in Group 17 of the periodic table and readily react with alkali metals.

All compounds in this study come in a number of different structures, also known as crystal lattices or phases. If atmospheric pressure is increased to 300,000 times its normal value, an another phase (B2) of NaCl (represented by the yellow portion of the diagram) becomes more stable, effecting a change in the crystal lattice. To test their choice of methods and parameters, the researchers simulated two crystal lattices and calculated the pressure that corresponds to the phase transition between them. Their predictions agree with experimental data.

Just how thin should it be?

The compounds within the scope of this study can all have a hexagonal, “graphitic”, G phase (the red in the diagram) that is unstable in 3D bulk but becomes the most stable structure for ultrathin (2D or quasi-2D) films. The researchers identified the relationship between the surface energy of a film and the number of layers in it for both cubic and hexagonal structures. They graphed this relationship by plotting two lines with different slopes for each of the compounds studied. Each pair of lines associated with one compound has a common point that corresponds to the critical slab thickness that makes conversion from a cubic to a hexagonal structure energetically favourable. For example, the critical number of layers was found to be close to 11 for all sodium salts and between 19 and 27 for lithium salts.

Based on this data, the researchers established a relationship between the critical number of layers and two parameters that determine the strength of the ionic bonds in various compounds. The first parameter indicates the size of an ion of a given metal–its ionic radius. The second parameter is called electronegativity and is a measure of the ? atom’s ability to attract the electrons of element B. Higher electronegativity means more powerful attraction of electrons by the atom, a more pronounced ionic nature of the bond, a larger surface dipole, and a lower critical slab thickness.

And there’s more

Pavel Sorokin, Dr. habil., [sic] is head of the Laboratory of New Materials Simulation at TISNCM. He explains the importance of the study, ‘This work has already attracted our colleagues from Israel and Japan. If they confirm our findings experimentally, this phenomenon [of graphitisation] will provide a viable route to the synthesis of ultrathin films with potential applications in nanoelectronics.’

The scientists intend to broaden the scope of their studies by examining other compounds. They believe that ultrathin films of different composition might also undergo spontaneous graphitisation, yielding new layered structures with properties that are even more intriguing.

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

Ionic Graphitization of Ultrathin Films of Ionic Compounds by A. G. Kvashnin, E. Y. Pashkin, B. I. Yakobson, and P. B. Sorokin. J. Phys. Chem. Lett., 2016, 7 (14), pp 2659–2663 DOI: 10.1021/acs.jpclett.6b01214 Publication Date (Web): June 23, 2016

Copyright © 2016 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Two nano workshops precede OpenTox Euro conference

The main conference OpenTox Euro is focused on novel materials and it’s being preceded by two nano workshops. All of of these events will be taking place in Germany in Oct. 2016. From an Aug. 11, 2016 posting by Lynn L. Bergeson on Nanotechnology Now,

The OpenTox Euro Conference, “Integrating Scientific Evidence Supporting Risk Assessment and Safer Design of Novel Substances,” will be held October 26-28, 2016. … The current topics for the Conference include: (1) computational modeling of mechanisms at the nanoscale; (2) translational bioinformatics applied to safety assessment; (3) advances in cheminformatics; (4) interoperability in action; (5) development and application of adverse outcome pathways; (6) open science applications showcase; (7) toxicokinetics and extrapolation; and (8) risk assessment.

On Oct. 24, 2016, two days before OpenTox Euro, the EU-US Nano EHS [Environmental Health and Safety] 2016 workshop will be held in Germany. The theme is: ‘Enabling a Sustainable Harmonised Knowledge Infrastructure supporting Nano Environmental and Health Safety Assessment’ and the objectives are,

The objective of the workshop is to facilitate networking, knowledge sharing and idea development on the requirements and implementation of a sustainable knowledge infrastructure for Nano Environmental and Health Safety Assessment and Communications. The infrastructure should support the needs required by different stakeholders including scientific researchers, industry, regulators, workers and consumers.

The workshop will also identify funding opportunities and financial models within and beyond current international and national programs. Specifically, the workshop will facilitate active discussions but also identify potential partners for future EU-US cooperation on the development of knowledge infrastructure in the NanoEHS field. Advances in the Nano Safety harmonisation process, including developing an ongoing working consensus on data management and ontology, will be discussed:

– Information needs of stakeholders and applications
– Data collection and management in the area of NanoEHS
– Developments in ontologies supporting NanoEHS goals
– Harmonisation efforts between EU and US programs
– Identify practice and infrastructure gaps and possible solutions
– Identify needs and solutions for different stakeholders
– Propose an overarching sustainable solution for the market and society

The presentations will be focused on the current efforts and concrete achievements within EU and US initiatives and their potential elaboration and extension.

The second workshop is being held by the eNanoMapper (ENM) project on Oct. 25, 2016 and concerns Nano Modelling. The objectives and workshop sessions are:

1. Give the opportunity to research groups working on computational nanotoxicology to disseminate their modelling tools based on hands-on examples and exercises
2. Present a collection of modelling tools that can span the entire lifecycle of nanotox research, starting from the design of experiments until use of models for risk assessment in biological and environmental systems.
3. Engage the workshop participants in using different modelling tools and motivate them to contribute and share their knowledge.

Indicative workshop sessions

• Preparation of datasets to be used for modelling and risk assessment
• Ontologies and databases
• Computation of theoretical descriptors
• NanoQSAR Modelling
• Ab-initio modelling
• Mechanistic modelling
• Modelling based on Omics data
• Filling data gaps-Read Across
• Risk assessment
• Experimental design

We would encourage research teams that have developed tools in the areas of computational nanotoxicology and risk assessment to demonstrate their tools in this workshop.

That’s going to be a very full week in Germany.

You can register for OpenTox Euro and more here.