Category Archives: nanotechnology

Springer Nature and its ‘nano research tool’

There’s news from Springer Nature. From a June 17, 2016 announcement by Benedicte Page for The Bookseller,

Springer Nature has launched its first non-journal product since the merged company was formed last year.

Nano, which will sit within the Nature Research portfolio, pulls together structured information on nanotechnology – the manipulation of matter at the level of atoms or molecules – from high-impact journals and patents, spanning disciplines and combining key features of a database and an indexing discovery tool.

Bettina Goerner, Springer Nature m.d. for corporate markets and databases, told The Bookseller that nanoscience and nanotechnology was “so new and growing so fast” that research is spread across a wide range of literature and applications, with Nano bringing together all the relevant information.

Goerner said it was a truly “joint product development” between the two halves of the merged company. “I come from the former Springer side, and we started developing this two years ago, a serious effort on our side,” she said. “The moment we merged it was clear we now had access to experts we didn’t have before, so we reached out to the editor-in-chief of Nature Nanotechnology, and to other relevant journals in the Nature portfolio, and they got very involved and made recommendations on content.”

Goerner added: “We also have a database called SpringerMaterials and we are definitely looking at this as a portfolio and have lots of ideas. We do see finding the right information is vital, especially in fast-growing fields such as this.”

Access to Nano will be via subscription.

A June 15, 2016 Springer Nature press release provides more details,

Developed to meet the needs of researchers in academic, corporate and government environments, Nano combines the key features of a database and an abstracting and indexing discovery tool. Over 200,000 manually-curated profiles of nanomaterials and devices are available, containing information on properties, synthesis and applications. Trials are available from today.

Growing public and private investment into nanotechnology has led to an increase in research outputs, with related articles more than doubling over the past ten years. Nanotechnology is also of growing importance for a vast range of industries – from medicine to aerospace – in developing new products and applications. With nanotechnology becoming an inescapable part of people’s day-to-day lives, policymakers are paying closer attention to it, too.

This area of research, however, presents challenges. Dr. Omid Farokhzad, Associate Professor, Harvard Medical School, said: “Nanotechnology research and development has been rising on a sharp slope across virtually all scientific disciplines and industries. The result has been a rapidly growing body of information in disparate places that is not readily and efficiently accessible. Researchers need a multidisciplinary database that brings this vast body of data together in an organized and usable way in one place. Working together with other scientists to develop a research solution that can meet this need, through Nano’s External Advisory Board, has made me confident that this is a product that can deliver huge value to the research community.”

Partnership and consultation have been at the heart of Nano’s creation. William Chiuman, Director of Product Management, Nanoscience and Technology, Springer Nature, said: “We have worked closely with academia and industry throughout Nano’s development, and we’ll continue to be guided by these external experts to ensure that Nano keeps pace with this dynamic field, and provides up-to-date, curated content, that will ultimately save researchers time and significantly extend their knowledge base.”

Nano is the first non-journal product to be launched by Springer Nature since it was formed in May 2015 by the merger of Springer Science+Business Media and the majority of Macmillan Science and Education, and will be part of the Nature Research portfolio. Steven Inchcoombe, Chief Publishing Officer, Springer Nature, said: “Nano is a product of the combined skills and talents of our new organisation. It exemplifies our ethos and ultimate aim of putting the needs of the researcher at the heart of everything that we do.”

More information about Nano is available at nano.nature.com.

I haven’t been able to find a subscription rate but you can sign up for a trial (presumably free); scroll down about 80% of the way.

I have some information about the May 2015 merger of Springer with Nature in my Dec. 2, 2015 posting (scroll down about 90% of the way).

Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) at summer 2016 World Economic Forum in China

From the Ideas Lab at the 2016 World Economic Forum at Davos to offering expertise at the 2016 World Economic Forum in Tanjin, China that is taking place from June 26 – 28, 2016.

Here’s more from a June 24, 2016 KAIST news release on EurekAlert,

Scientific and technological breakthroughs are more important than ever as a key agent to drive social, economic, and political changes and advancements in today’s world. The World Economic Forum (WEF), an international organization that provides one of the broadest engagement platforms to address issues of major concern to the global community, will discuss the effects of these breakthroughs at its 10th Annual Meeting of the New Champions, a.k.a., the Summer Davos Forum, in Tianjin, China, June 26-28, 2016.

Three professors from the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) will join the Annual Meeting and offer their expertise in the fields of biotechnology, artificial intelligence, and robotics to explore the conference theme, “The Fourth Industrial Revolution and Its Transformational Impact.” The Fourth Industrial Revolution, a term coined by WEF founder, Klaus Schwab, is characterized by a range of new technologies that fuse the physical, digital, and biological worlds, such as the Internet of Things, cloud computing, and automation.

Distinguished Professor Sang Yup Lee of the Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Department will speak at the Experts Reception to be held on June 25, 2016 on the topic of “The Summer Davos Forum and Science and Technology in Asia.” On June 27, 2016, he will participate in two separate discussion sessions.

In the first session entitled “What If Drugs Are Printed from the Internet?” Professor Lee will discuss the future of medicine being impacted by advancements in biotechnology and 3D printing technology with Nita A. Farahany, a Duke University professor, under the moderation of Clare Matterson, the Director of Strategy at Wellcome Trust in the United Kingdom. The discussants will note recent developments made in the way patients receive their medicine, for example, downloading drugs directly from the internet and the production of yeast strains to make opioids for pain treatment through systems metabolic engineering, and predicting how these emerging technologies will transform the landscape of the pharmaceutical industry in the years to come.

In the second session, “Lessons for Life,” Professor Lee will talk about how to nurture life-long learning and creativity to support personal and professional growth necessary in an era of the new industrial revolution.

During the Annual Meeting, Professors Jong-Hwan Kim of the Electrical Engineering School and David Hyunchul Shim of the Aerospace Department will host, together with researchers from Carnegie Mellon University and AnthroTronix, an engineering research and development company, a technological exhibition on robotics. Professor Kim, the founder of the internally renowned Robot World Cup, will showcase his humanoid micro-robots that play soccer, displaying their various cutting-edge technologies such as imaging processing, artificial intelligence, walking, and balancing. Professor Shim will present a human-like robotic piloting system, PIBOT, which autonomously operates a simulated flight program, grabbing control sticks and guiding an airplane from take offs to landings.

In addition, the two professors will join Professor Lee, who is also a moderator, to host a KAIST-led session on June 26, 2016, entitled “Science in Depth: From Deep Learning to Autonomous Machines.” Professors Kim and Shim will explore new opportunities and challenges in their fields from machine learning to autonomous robotics including unmanned vehicles and drones.

Since 2011, KAIST has been participating in the World Economic Forum’s two flagship conferences, the January and June Davos Forums, to introduce outstanding talents, share their latest research achievements, and interact with global leaders.

KAIST President Steve Kang said, “It is important for KAIST to be involved in global talks that identify issues critical to humanity and seek answers to solve them, where our skills and knowledge in science and technology could play a meaningful role. The Annual Meeting in China will become another venue to accomplish this.”

I mentioned KAIST and the Ideas Lab at the 2016 Davos meeting in this Nov. 20, 2015 posting and was able to clear up my (and possible other people’s) confusion as to what the Fourth Industrial revolution might be in my Dec. 3, 2015 posting.

Artificial synapse rivals biological synapse in energy consumption

How can we make computers be like biological brains which do so much work and use so little power? It’s a question scientists from many countries are trying to answer and it seems South Korean scientists are proposing an answer. From a June 20, 2016 news item on Nanowerk,

News) Creation of an artificial intelligence system that fully emulates the functions of a human brain has long been a dream of scientists. A brain has many superior functions as compared with super computers, even though it has light weight, small volume, and consumes extremely low energy. This is required to construct an artificial neural network, in which a huge amount (1014)) of synapses is needed.

Most recently, great efforts have been made to realize synaptic functions in single electronic devices, such as using resistive random access memory (RRAM), phase change memory (PCM), conductive bridges, and synaptic transistors. Artificial synapses based on highly aligned nanostructures are still desired for the construction of a highly-integrated artificial neural network.

Prof. Tae-Woo Lee, research professor Wentao Xu, and Dr. Sung-Yong Min with the Dept. of Materials Science and Engineering at POSTECH [Pohang University of Science & Technology, South Korea] have succeeded in fabricating an organic nanofiber (ONF) electronic device that emulates not only the important working principles and energy consumption of biological synapses but also the morphology. …

A June 20, 2016 Pohang University of Science & Technology (POSTECH) news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, describes the work in more detail,

The morphology of ONFs is very similar to that of nerve fibers, which form crisscrossing grids to enable the high memory density of a human brain. Especially, based on the e-Nanowire printing technique, highly-aligned ONFs can be massively produced with precise control over alignment and dimension. This morphology potentially enables the future construction of high-density memory of a neuromorphic system.

Important working principles of a biological synapse have been emulated, such as paired-pulse facilitation (PPF), short-term plasticity (STP), long-term plasticity (LTP), spike-timing dependent plasticity (STDP), and spike-rate dependent plasticity (SRDP). Most amazingly, energy consumption of the device can be reduced to a femtojoule level per synaptic event, which is a value magnitudes lower than previous reports. It rivals that of a biological synapse. In addition, the organic artificial synapse devices not only provide a new research direction in neuromorphic electronics but even open a new era of organic electronics.

This technology will lead to the leap of brain-inspired electronics in both memory density and energy consumption aspects. The artificial synapse developed by Prof. Lee’s research team will provide important potential applications to neuromorphic computing systems and artificial intelligence systems for autonomous cars (or self-driving cars), analysis of big data, cognitive systems, robot control, medical diagnosis, stock trading analysis, remote sensing, and other smart human-interactive systems and machines in the future.

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

Organic core-sheath nanowire artificial synapses with femtojoule energy consumption by Wentao Xu, Sung-Yong Min, Hyunsang Hwang, and Tae-Woo Lee. Science Advances  17 Jun 2016: Vol. 2, no. 6, e1501326 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1501326

This paper is open access.

Carrying a solar cell on a pencil or glass slide?

Caption: Ultra-thin solar cells are flexible enough to bend around small objects, such as the 1mm-thick edge of a glass slide, as shown here. Credit: Juho Kim, et al/ APL

Caption: Ultra-thin solar cells are flexible enough to bend around small objects, such as the 1mm-thick edge of a glass slide, as shown here. Credit: Juho Kim, et al/ APL

Yes, this is another wearable electronics story and this time, it’s from South Korea. A June 20, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily announces remarkably thin and flexible photovoltaics,

Scientists in South Korea have made ultra-thin photovoltaics flexible enough to wrap around the average pencil. The bendy solar cells could power wearable electronics like fitness trackers and smart glasses. …

A June 20, 2016 American Institute of Physics news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

Thin materials flex more easily than thick ones – think a piece of paper versus a cardboard shipping box. The reason for the difference: The stress in a material while it’s being bent increases farther out from the central plane. Because thick sheets have more material farther out they are harder to bend.

“Our photovoltaic is about 1 micrometer thick,” said Jongho Lee, an engineer at the Gwangju Institute of Science and Technology in South Korea. One micrometer is much thinner than an average human hair. Standard photovoltaics are usually hundreds of times thicker, and even most other thin photovoltaics are 2 to 4 times thicker.

The researchers made the ultra-thin solar cells from the semiconductor gallium arsenide. They stamped the cells directly onto a flexible substrate without using an adhesive that would add to the material’s thickness. The cells were then “cold welded” to the electrode on the substrate by applying pressure at 170 degrees Celcius and melting a top layer of material called photoresist that acted as a temporary adhesive. The photoresist was later peeled away, leaving the direct metal to metal bond.

The metal bottom layer also served as a reflector to direct stray photons back to the solar cells. The researchers tested the efficiency of the device at converting sunlight to electricity and found that it was comparable to similar thicker photovoltaics. They performed bending tests and found the cells could wrap around a radius as small as 1.4 millimeters.

The team also performed numerical analysis of the cells, finding that they experience one-fourth the amount of strain of similar cells that are 3.5 micrometers thick.

“The thinner cells are less fragile under bending, but perform similarly or even slightly better,” Lee said.

A few other groups have reported solar cells with thicknesses of around 1 micrometer, but have produced the cells in different ways, for example by removing the whole substract by etching.

By transfer printing instead of etching, the new method developed by Lee and his colleagues may be used to make very flexible photovoltaics with a smaller amount of materials.

The thin cells can be integrated onto glasses frames or fabric and might power the next wave of wearable electronics, Lee said.

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

Ultra-thin flexible GaAs photovoltaics in vertical forms printed on metal surfaces without interlayer adhesives by Juho Kim, Jeongwoo Hwang, Kwangsun Song, Namyun Kim, Jae Cheol Shin, and Jongho Lee. Appl. Phys. Lett. 108, 253101 (2016); http://dx.doi.org/10.1063/1.4954039

This paper is open access.

Ukidama-structured nanoparticles discovered

The researchers discovered a new nanoparticle structure that resemble the ukidama, glass fishing floats, used regularly by Japanese fishermen. The nanoparticle has a core of one element (copper) and is surrounded by a “cage” of another element (silver). The silver does not cover certain areas of the copper core, which is very similar to the rope that surrounds the glass float. Courtesy: Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (OIST)

The researchers discovered a new nanoparticle structure that resemble the ukidama, glass fishing floats, used regularly by Japanese fishermen. The nanoparticle has a core of one element (copper) and is surrounded by a “cage” of another element (silver). The silver does not cover certain areas of the copper core, which is very similar to the rope that surrounds the glass float. Courtesy: Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (OIST)

What a beautiful image to illustrate the new ukidama nanoparticle structure! Here’s the announcement in a June 13, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily,

Sometimes it is the tiny things in the world that can make an incredible difference. One of these things is the nanoparticle. Nanoparticles may be small, but they have a variety of important applications in areas such as, medicine, manufacturing, and energy. A team of researchers from Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University (OIST) recently discovered a unique copper-silver nanoparticle structure that has a core of one element surrounded by a “cage” of the other element. However, the cage does not cover certain areas of the core, which very much resembles the Japanese glass fishing floats traditionally covered with rope called ukidama.

This previously undiscovered ukidama structure may have properties that can help the team on their mission for optimal nanotechnology. …

A June 13, 2016 OIST press release by Rebecca Holland (also on EurekAlert; the June 12, 2016 publication date discrepancy is likely due to timezone issues), which originated the news item, provides more insight into the research team’s workings,

“The ukidama is a unique structure, which means that it can likely give us unique properties,” said Panagiotis Grammatikopoulos, first author and group leader of the OIST Nanoparticles by Design Unit. “The idea is that now that we know about this structure we may be able to fine tune it to our applications.”

The OIST researchers are continually working to create and design nanoparticles that can be used in biomedical technology. Specifically, the team works to design the optimal nanoparticles for technologies like smart gas sensors that can send information about what is going on inside your body to your smart phone for better diagnoses. Another application is the label free biosensor, a device that can detect chemical substances without the hindrance of fluorescent or radioactive labels. The identification of the ukidama structure is important in this endeavour because having a new structure increases the possibilities for technological advancements.

“The more parameters that we can control the more flexibility we have in our applications and devices,” Prof. Mukhles Sowwan, author and head of OIST’s Nanoparticles by Design Unit said. “Therefore, we need to optimize many properties of these nanoparticles: the size, chemical composition, crystallinity, shape, and structure.”

The discovery of the ukidama structure was found through sputtering copper and silver atoms simultaneously, but independently, through a magnetron-sputtering system at high temperatures. When the atoms began to cool they combined into bi-metallic nanoparticles. During the sputtering process, researchers could control the ratio of silver to copper, with the rate of power with which the atoms were sputtered. They found that the ukidama structure was possible, especially when the copper was the dominant element, since silver atoms have a higher tendency to diffuse on the nanoparticle surface. From their experimental findings, the team was able to create simulations that can clearly show how the ukidama nanoparticles form.

The team is now looking to see if this structure can be recreated in other types of nanoparticles, which could be an even bigger step in the optimization of nanoparticles for biomedical application and nanotechnology.

“We design and optimize nanoparticles for biomedical devices and nanotechnology,” Sowwan said. “Because the ukidama is a new structure, it may have properties that could be utilized in our applications.”

Co-author, Antony Galea, formerly of the Nanoparticles by Design Unit, was responsible for the experimental portion of this study and has since moved to OIST’s Technology and Licensing Section to help research – like this work being done with nanoparticles that can be utilized in applications – move into the market.

“Our aim is to take research created by OIST from the lab to the real world,” Galea said. “This is a way that work done at OIST, such as by the Nanoparticles by Design Unit, can benefit society.”

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

Kinetic trapping through coalescence and the formation of patterned Ag–Cu nanoparticles by Panagiotis Grammatikopoulos, Joseph Kioseoglou, Antony Galea, Jerome Vernieres, Maria Benelmekki, Rosa E. Diaz, Mukhles Sowwan. Nanoscale, 2016; 8 (18): 9780 DOI: 10.1039/C5NR08256K

I believe this paper is behind a paywall.

X-rays reveal memristor workings

A June 14, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily focuses on memristors. (It’s been about two months since my last memristor posting on April 22, 2016 regarding electronic synapses and neural networks). This piece announces new insight into how memristors function at the atomic scale,

In experiments at two Department of Energy national labs — SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory — scientists at Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) [also referred to as HP Labs or Hewlett Packard Laboratories] have experimentally confirmed critical aspects of how a new type of microelectronic device, the memristor, works at an atomic scale.

This result is an important step in designing these solid-state devices for use in future computer memories that operate much faster, last longer and use less energy than today’s flash memory. …

“We need information like this to be able to design memristors that will succeed commercially,” said Suhas Kumar, an HPE scientist and first author on the group’s technical paper.

A June 13, 2016 SLAC news release, which originated the news item, offers a brief history according to HPE and provides details about the latest work,

The memristor was proposed theoretically [by Dr. Leon Chua] in 1971 as the fourth basic electrical device element alongside the resistor, capacitor and inductor. At its heart is a tiny piece of a transition metal oxide sandwiched between two electrodes. Applying a positive or negative voltage pulse dramatically increases or decreases the memristor’s electrical resistance. This behavior makes it suitable for use as a “non-volatile” computer memory that, like flash memory, can retain its state without being refreshed with additional power.

Over the past decade, an HPE group led by senior fellow R. Stanley Williams has explored memristor designs, materials and behavior in detail. Since 2009 they have used intense synchrotron X-rays to reveal the movements of atoms in memristors during switching. Despite advances in understanding the nature of this switching, critical details that would be important in designing commercially successful circuits  remained controversial. For example, the forces that move the atoms, resulting in dramatic resistance changes during switching, remain under debate.

In recent years, the group examined memristors made with oxides of titanium, tantalum and vanadium. Initial experiments revealed that switching in the tantalum oxide devices could be controlled most easily, so it was chosen for further exploration at two DOE Office of Science User Facilities – SLAC’s Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL) and Berkeley Lab’s Advanced Light Source (ALS).

At ALS, the HPE researchers mapped the positions of oxygen atoms before and after switching. For this, they used a scanning transmission X-ray microscope and an apparatus they built to precisely control the position of their sample and the timing and intensity of the 500-electronvolt ALS X-rays, which were tuned to see oxygen.

The experiments revealed that even weak voltage pulses create a thin conductive path through the memristor. During the pulse the path heats up, which creates a force that pushes oxygen atoms away from the path, making it even more conductive. Reversing the voltage pulse resets the memristor by sucking some of oxygen atoms back into the conducting path, thereby increasing the device’s resistance. The memristor’s resistance changes between 10-fold and 1 million-fold, depending on operating parameters like the voltage-pulse amplitude. This resistance change is dramatic enough to exploit commercially.

To be sure of their conclusion, the researchers also needed to understand if the tantalum atoms were moving along with the oxygen during switching. Imaging tantalum required higher-energy, 10,000-electronvolt X-rays, which they obtained at SSRL’s Beam Line 6-2. In a single session there, they determined that the tantalum remained stationary.

“That sealed the deal, convincing us that our hypothesis was correct,” said HPE scientist Catherine Graves, who had worked at SSRL as a Stanford graduate student. She added that discussions with SLAC experts were critical in guiding the HPE team toward the X-ray techniques that would allow them to see the tantalum accurately.

Kumar said the most promising aspect of the tantalum oxide results was that the scientists saw no degradation in switching over more than a billion voltage pulses of a magnitude suitable for commercial use. He added that this knowledge helped his group build memristors that lasted nearly a billion switching cycles, about a thousand-fold improvement.

“This is much longer endurance than is possible with today’s flash memory devices,” Kumar said. “In addition, we also used much higher voltage pulses to accelerate and observe memristor failures, which is also important in understanding how these devices work. Failures occurred when oxygen atoms were forced so far away that they did not return to their initial positions.”

Beyond memory chips, Kumar says memristors’ rapid switching speed and small size could make them suitable for use in logic circuits. Additional memristor characteristics may also be beneficial in the emerging class of brain-inspired neuromorphic computing circuits.

“Transistors are big and bulky compared to memristors,” he said. “Memristors are also much better suited for creating the neuron-like voltage spikes that characterize neuromorphic circuits.”

The researchers have provided an animation illustrating how memristors can fail,

This animation shows how millions of high-voltage switching cycles can cause memristors to fail. The high-voltage switching eventually creates regions that are permanently rich (blue pits) or deficient (red peaks) in oxygen and cannot be switched back. Switching at lower voltages that would be suitable for commercial devices did not show this performance degradation. These observations allowed the researchers to develop materials processing and operating conditions that improved the memristors’ endurance by nearly a thousand times. (Suhas Kumar) Courtesy: SLAC

This animation shows how millions of high-voltage switching cycles can cause memristors to fail. The high-voltage switching eventually creates regions that are permanently rich (blue pits) or deficient (red peaks) in oxygen and cannot be switched back. Switching at lower voltages that would be suitable for commercial devices did not show this performance degradation. These observations allowed the researchers to develop materials processing and operating conditions that improved the memristors’ endurance by nearly a thousand times. (Suhas Kumar) Courtesy: SLAC

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

Direct Observation of Localized Radial Oxygen Migration in Functioning Tantalum Oxide Memristors by Suhas Kumar, Catherine E. Graves, John Paul Strachan, Emmanuelle Merced Grafals, Arthur L. David Kilcoyne3, Tolek Tyliszczak, Johanna Nelson Weker, Yoshio Nishi, and R. Stanley Williams. Advanced Materials, First published: 2 February 2016; Print: Volume 28, Issue 14 April 13, 2016 Pages 2772–2776 DOI: 10.1002/adma.201505435

This paper is behind a paywall.

Some of the ‘memristor story’ is contested and you can find a brief overview of the discussion in this Wikipedia memristor entry in the section on ‘definition and criticism’. There is also a history of the memristor which dates back to the 19th century featured in my May 22, 2012 posting.

A human user manual—for robots

Researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech), funded by the US Office of Naval Research (ONR), have developed a program that teaches robots to read stories and more in an effort to educate them about humans. From a June 16, 2016 ONR news release by Warren Duffie Jr. (also on EurekAlert),

With support from the Office of Naval Research (ONR), researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have created an artificial intelligence software program named Quixote to teach robots to read stories, learn acceptable behavior and understand successful ways to conduct themselves in diverse social situations.

“For years, researchers have debated how to teach robots to act in ways that are appropriate, non-intrusive and trustworthy,” said Marc Steinberg, an ONR program manager who oversees the research. “One important question is how to explain complex concepts such as policies, values or ethics to robots. Humans are really good at using narrative stories to make sense of the world and communicate to other people. This could one day be an effective way to interact with robots.”

The rapid pace of artificial intelligence has stirred fears by some that robots could act unethically or harm humans. Dr. Mark Riedl, an associate professor and director of Georgia Tech’s Entertainment Intelligence Lab, hopes to ease concerns by having Quixote serve as a “human user manual” by teaching robots values through simple stories. After all, stories inform, educate and entertain–reflecting shared cultural knowledge, social mores and protocols.

For example, if a robot is tasked with picking up a pharmacy prescription for a human as quickly as possible, it could: a) take the medicine and leave, b) interact politely with pharmacists, c) or wait in line. Without value alignment and positive reinforcement, the robot might logically deduce robbery is the fastest, cheapest way to accomplish its task. However, with value alignment from Quixote, it would be rewarded for waiting patiently in line and paying for the prescription.

For their research, Riedl and his team crowdsourced stories from the Internet. Each tale needed to highlight daily social interactions–going to a pharmacy or restaurant, for example–as well as socially appropriate behaviors (e.g., paying for meals or medicine) within each setting.

The team plugged the data into Quixote to create a virtual agent–in this case, a video game character placed into various game-like scenarios mirroring the stories. As the virtual agent completed a game, it earned points and positive reinforcement for emulating the actions of protagonists in the stories.

Riedl’s team ran the agent through 500,000 simulations, and it displayed proper social interactions more than 90 percent of the time.

“These games are still fairly simple,” said Riedl, “more like ‘Pac-Man’ instead of ‘Halo.’ However, Quixote enables these artificial intelligence agents to immerse themselves in a story, learn the proper sequence of events and be encoded with acceptable behavior patterns. This type of artificial intelligence can be adapted to robots, offering a variety of applications.”

Within the next six months, Riedl’s team hopes to upgrade Quixote’s games from “old-school” to more modern and complex styles like those found in Minecraft–in which players use blocks to build elaborate structures and societies.

Riedl believes Quixote could one day make it easier for humans to train robots to perform diverse tasks. Steinberg notes that robotic and artificial intelligence systems may one day be a much larger part of military life. This could involve mine detection and deactivation, equipment transport and humanitarian and rescue operations.

“Within a decade, there will be more robots in society, rubbing elbows with us,” said Riedl. “Social conventions grease the wheels of society, and robots will need to understand the nuances of how humans do things. That’s where Quixote can serve as a valuable tool. We’re already seeing it with virtual agents like Siri and Cortana, which are programmed not to say hurtful or insulting things to users.”

This story brought to mind two other projects: RoboEarth (an internet for robots only) mentioned in my Jan. 14, 2014 which was an update on the project featuring its use in hospitals and RoboBrain, a robot learning project (sourcing the internet, YouTube, and more for information to teach robots) was mentioned in my Sept. 2, 2014 posting.

Oil spill cleanups with supergelators

Researchers in Singapore have proposed a new technology for cleaning up oil spills, according to a June 17, 2016 news item on Nanowerk,

Large-scale oil spills, where hundreds of tons of petroleum products are accidentally released into the oceans, not only have devastating effects on the environment, but have significant socio-economic impact as well [1].

Current techniques of cleaning up oil spills are not very efficient and may even cause further pollution or damage to the environment. These methods, which include the use of toxic detergent-like compounds called dispersants or burning of the oil slick, result in incomplete removal of the oil. The oil molecules remain in the water over long periods and may even be spread over a larger area as they are carried by wind and waves. Further, burning can only be applied to fresh oil slicks of at least 3 millimeters thick, and this process would also cause secondary environmental pollution.

In a bid to improve the technology utilized by cleanup crews to manage and contain such large spills, researchers from the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (IBN) of A*STAR [located in Singapore] have invented a smart oil-scavenging material or supergelators that could help clean up oil spills efficiently and rapidly to prevent secondary pollution.

These supergelators are derived from highly soluble small organic molecules, which instantly self-assemble into nanofibers to form a 3D net that traps the oil molecules so that they can be removed easily from the surface of the water.

A June 17, 2016 IBN A*STAR media release, which originated the news item, provides more detail,

“Marine oil spills have a disastrous impact on the environment and marine life, and result in an enormous economic burden on society. Our rapid-acting supergelators offer an effective cleanup solution that can help to contain the severe environmental damage and impact of such incidents in the future,” said IBN Executive Director Professor Jackie Y. Ying.

Motivated by the urgent need for a more effective oil spill control solution, the IBN researchers developed new compounds that dissolve easily in environmentally friendly solvents and gel rapidly upon contact with oil. The supergelator molecules arrange themselves into a 3D network, entangling the oil molecules into clumps that can then be easily skimmed off the water’s surface.

“The most interesting and useful characteristic of our molecules is their ability to stack themselves on top of each other. These stacked columns allow our researchers to create and test different molecular constructions, while finding the best structure that will yield the desired properties,” said IBN Team Leader and Principal Research Scientist Dr Huaqiang Zeng. (Animation: Click to see how the supergelators stack themselves into columns.)

IBN’s supergelators have been tested on various types of weathered and unweathered crude oil in seawater, and have been found to be effective in solidifying all of them. The supergelators take only minutes to solidify the oil at room temperature for easy removal from water. In addition, tests carried out by the research team showed that the supergelator was not toxic to human cells, as well as zebrafish embryos and larvae. The researchers believe that these qualities would make the supergelators suitable for use in large oil spill areas.

The Institute is looking for industrial partners to further develop its technology for commercial use. [emphasis mine]

Video: Click to watch the supergelators in action

  1. The well documented BP Gulf of Mexico oil well accident in 2010 was a catastrophe on an unprecedented scale, with damages amounting to hundreds of billions of dollars. Its wide-ranging effects on the marine ecosystem, as well as the fishing and tourism industries, can still be felt six years on.

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

Instant Room-Temperature Gelation of Crude Oil by Chiral Organogelators by Changliang Ren, Grace Hwee Boon Ng, Hong Wu, Kiat-Hwa Chan, Jie Shen, Cathleen Teh, Jackie Y. Ying, and Huaqiang Zeng. Chem. Mater., 2016, 28 (11), pp 4001–4008 DOI: 10.1021/acs.chemmater.6b01367 Publication Date (Web): May 10, 2016

Copyright © 2016 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

I have featured other nanotechnology-enabled oil spill cleanup solutions here. One of the more recent pieces is my Dec. 7, 2015 post about boron nitride sponges. The search terms: ‘oil spill’ and ‘oil spill cleanup’ will help you unearth more.

There have been some promising possibilities and I hope one day these clean up technologies will be brought to market.

DNA as a framework for rationally designed nanostructures

After publishing a June 15, 2016 post about taking DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) beyond genetics, it seemed like a good to publish a companion piece featuring a more technical explanation of at least one way DNA might provide the base for living computers and robots. From a June 13, 2016 BrookHaven National Laboratory news release (also on EurekAlert),

A cube, an octahedron, a prism–these are among the polyhedral structures, or frames, made of DNA that scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory have designed to connect nanoparticles into a variety of precisely structured three-dimensional (3D) lattices. The scientists also developed a method to integrate nanoparticles and DNA frames into interconnecting modules, expanding the diversity of possible structures.

These achievements, described in papers published in Nature Materials and Nature Chemistry, could enable the rational design of nanomaterials with enhanced or combined optical, electric, and magnetic properties to achieve desired functions.

“We are aiming to create self-assembled nanostructures from blueprints,” said physicist Oleg Gang, who led this research at the Center for Functional Nanomaterials (CFN), a DOE Office of Science User Facility at Brookhaven. “The structure of our nanoparticle assemblies is mostly controlled by the shape and binding properties of precisely designed DNA frames, not by the nanoparticles themselves. By enabling us to engineer different lattices and architectures without having to manipulate the particles, our method opens up great opportunities for designing nanomaterials with properties that can be enhanced by precisely organizing functional components. For example, we could create targeted light-absorbing materials that harness solar energy, or magnetic materials that increase information-storage capacity.”

The news release goes on to describe the frames,

Gang’s team has previously exploited DNA’s complementary base pairing–the highly specific binding of bases known by the letters A, T, G, and C that make up the rungs of the DNA double-helix “ladder”–to bring particles together in a precise way. Particles coated with single strands of DNA link to particles coated with complementary strands (A binds with T and G binds with C) while repelling particles coated with non-complementary strands.

They have also designed 3D DNA frames whose corners have single-stranded DNA tethers to which nanoparticles coated with complementary strands can bind. When the scientists mix these nanoparticles and frames, the components self-assemble into lattices that are mainly defined by the shape of the designed frame. The Nature Materials paper describes the most recent structures achieved using this strategy.

“In our approach, we use DNA frames to promote the directional interactions between nanoparticles such that the particles connect into specific configurations that achieve the desired 3D arrays,” said Ye Tian, lead author on the Nature Materials paper and a member of Gang’s research team. “The geometry of each particle-linking frame is directly related to the lattice type, though the exact nature of this relationship is still being explored.”

So far, the team has designed five polyhedral frame shapes–a cube, an octahedron, an elongated square bipyramid, a prism, and a triangular bypyramid–but a variety of other shapes could be created.

“The idea is to construct different 3D structures (buildings) from the same nanoparticle (brick),” said Gang. “Usually, the particles need to be modified to produce the desired structures. Our approach significantly reduces the structure’s dependence on the nature of the particle, which can be gold, silver, iron, or any other inorganic material.”

Nanoparticles (yellow balls) capped with short single-stranded DNA (blue squiggly lines) are mixed with polyhedral DNA frames (from top to bottom): cube, octahedron, elongated square bipyramid, prism, and triangular bipyramid. The frames' vertices are encoded with complementary DNA strands for nanoparticle binding. When the corresponding frames and particles mix, they form a framework. Courtesy of Brookhaven National Laboratory

Nanoparticles (yellow balls) capped with short single-stranded DNA (blue squiggly lines) are mixed with polyhedral DNA frames (from top to bottom): cube, octahedron, elongated square bipyramid, prism, and triangular bipyramid. The frames’ vertices are encoded with complementary DNA strands for nanoparticle binding. When the corresponding frames and particles mix, they form a framework. Courtesy of Brookhaven National Laboratory

There’s also a discussion about how DNA origami was used to design the frames,

To design the frames, the team used DNA origami, a self-assembly technique in which short synthetic strands of DNA (staple strands) are mixed with a longer single strand of biologically derived DNA (scaffold strand). When the scientists heat and cool this mixture, the staple strands selectively bind with or “staple” the scaffold strand, causing the scaffold strand to repeatedly fold over onto itself. Computer software helps them determine the specific sequences for folding the DNA into desired shapes.

The folding of the single-stranded DNA scaffold introduces anchoring points that contain free “sticky” ends–unpaired strings of DNA bases–where nanoparticles coated with complementary single-strand tethers can attach. These sticky ends can be positioned anywhere on the DNA frame, but Gang’s team chose the corners so that multiple frames could be connected.

For each frame shape, the number of DNA strands linking a frame corner to an individual nanoparticle is equivalent to the number of edges converging at that corner. The cube and prism frames have three strands at each corner, for example. By making these corner tethers with varying numbers of bases, the scientists can tune the flexibility and length of the particle-frame linkages.

The interparticle distances are determined by the lengths of the frame edges, which are tens of nanometers in the frames designed to date, but the scientists say it should be possible to tailor the frames to achieve any desired dimensions.

The scientists verified the frame structures and nanoparticle arrangements through cryo-electron microscopy (a type of microscopy conducted at very low temperatures) at the CFN and Brookhaven’s Biology Department, and x-ray scattering at the National Synchrotron Light Source II (NSLS-II), a DOE Office of Science User Facility at Brookhaven.

The team started with a relatively simple form (from the news release),

In the Nature Chemistry paper, Gang’s team described how they used a similar DNA-based approach to create programmable two-dimensional (2D), square-like DNA frames around single nanoparticles.

DNA strands inside the frames provide coupling to complementary DNA on the nanoparticles, essentially holding the particle inside the frame. Each exterior side of the frame can be individually encoded with different DNA sequences. These outer DNA strands guide frame-frame recognition and connection.

Gang likens these DNA-framed nanoparticle modules to Legos whose interactions are programmed: “Each module can hold a different kind of nanoparticle and interlock to other modules in different but specific ways, fully determined by the complementary pairing of the DNA bases on the sides of the frame.”

In other words, the frames not only determine if the nanoparticles will connect but also how they will connect. Programming the frame sides with specific DNA sequences means only frames with complementary sequences can link up.

Mixing different types of modules together can yield a variety of structures, similar to the constructs that can be generated from Lego pieces. By creating a library of the modules, the scientists hope to be able to assemble structures on demand.

Finally, the discussion turns to the assembly of multifuctional nanomaterials (from the news release),

The selectivity of the connections enables different types and sizes of nanoparticles to be combined into single structures.

The geometry of the connections, or how the particles are oriented in space, is very important to designing structures with desired functions. For example, optically active nanoparticles can be arranged in a particular geometry to rotate, filter, absorb, and emit light–capabilities that are relevant for energy-harvesting applications, such as display screens and solar panels.

By using different modules from the “library,” Gang’s team demonstrated the self-assembly of one-dimensional linear arrays, “zigzag” chains, square-shaped and cross-shaped clusters, and 2D square lattices. The scientists even generated a simplistic nanoscale model of Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man.

“We wanted to demonstrate that complex nanoparticle architectures can be self-assembled using our approach,” said Gang.

Again, the scientists used sophisticated imaging techniques–electron and atomic force microscopy at the CFN and x-ray scattering at NSLS-II–to verify that their structures were consistent with the prescribed designs and to study the assembly process in detail.

“Although many additional studies are required, our results show that we are making advances toward our goal of creating designed matter via self-assembly, including periodic particle arrays and complex nanoarchitectures with freeform shapes,” said Gang. “Our approach is exciting because it is a new platform for nanoscale manufacturing, one that can lead to a variety of rationally designed functional materials.”

Here’s an image illustrating among other things da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man,

A schematic diagram (left) showing how a nanoparticle (yellow ball) is incorporated within a square-like DNA frame. The DNA strands inside the frame (blue squiggly lines) are complementary to the DNA strands on the nanoparticle; the colored strands on the outer edges of the frame have different DNA sequences that determine how the DNA-framed nanoparticle modules can connect. The architecture shown (middle) is a simplistic nanoscale representation of Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man, assembled from several module types. The scientists used atomic force microscopy to generate the high-magnification image of this assembly (right). Courtesy Brookhaven National Laboratory

A schematic diagram (left) showing how a nanoparticle (yellow ball) is incorporated within a square-like DNA frame. The DNA strands inside the frame (blue squiggly lines) are complementary to the DNA strands on the nanoparticle; the colored strands on the outer edges of the frame have different DNA sequences that determine how the DNA-framed nanoparticle modules can connect. The architecture shown (middle) is a simplistic nanoscale representation of Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, assembled from several module types. The scientists used atomic force microscopy to generate the high-magnification image of this assembly (right). Courtesy Brookhaven National Laboratory

I enjoy the overviews provided by various writers and thinkers in the field but it’s details such as these that are often most compelling to me.