Category Archives: environment

Nanoplastics accumulating in marine organisms

I’m starting to have a collection of postings related to plastic nanoparticles and aquatic life (I have a listing below). The latest originates in Singapore (from a May 31, 2018 news item on ScienceDaily),

Plastic nanoparticles — these are tiny pieces of plastic less than 1 micrometre in size — could potentially contaminate food chains, and ultimately affect human health, according to a recent study by scientists from the National University of Singapore (NUS). They discovered that nanoplastics are easily ingested by marine organisms, and they accumulate in the organisms over time, with a risk of being transferred up the food chain, threatening food safety and posing health risks.

A May 31, 2018 NUS press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

Ocean plastic pollution is a huge and growing global problem. It is estimated that the oceans may already contain over 150 million tonnes of plastic, and each year, about eight million tonnes of plastic will end up in the ocean. Plastics do not degrade easily. In the marine environment, plastics are usually broken down into smaller pieces by the sun, waves, wind and microbial action. These micro- and nanoplastic particles in the water may be ingested by filter-feeding marine organisms such as barnacles, tube worms and sea-squirts.

Using the acorn barnacle Amphibalanus amphitrite as a model organism, the NUS research team demonstrated for the first time that nanoplastics consumed during the larval stage are retained and accumulated inside the barnacle larvae until they reach adulthood.

“We opted to study acorn barnacles as their short life cycle and transparent bodies made it easy to track and visualise the movement of nanoplastics in their bodies within a short span of time,” said Mr Samarth Bhargava, a PhD student from the Department of Chemistry at the NUS Faculty of Science, who is the first author of the research paper.

“Barnacles can be found in all of the world’s oceans. This accumulation of nanoplastics within the barnacles is of concern. Further work is needed to better understand how they may contribute to longer term effects on marine ecosystems,” said Dr Serena Teo, Senior Research Fellow from the Tropical Marine Science Institute at NUS, who co-supervised the research.

Studying the fate of nanoplastics in marine organisms

The NUS research team incubated the barnacle larvae in solutions of their regular feed coupled with plastics that are about 200 nanometres in size with green fluorescent tags. The larvae were exposed to two different treatments: ‘acute’ and ‘chronic’.

Under the ‘acute’ treatment, the barnacle larvae were kept for three hours in a solution that contained 25 times more nanoplastics than current estimates of what is present in the oceans. On the other hand, under the ‘chronic’ treatment, the barnacle larvae were exposed to a solution containing low concentrations of nanoplastics for up to four days.

The larvae were subsequently filtered from the solution, and examined under the microscope. The distribution and movement of the nanoplastics were monitored by examining the fluorescence from the particles present within the larvae over time.

“Our results showed that after exposing the barnacle larvae to nanoplastics in both treatments, the larvae had not only ingested the plastic particles, but the tiny particles were found to be distributed throughout the bodies of the larvae,” said Ms Serina Lee from the Tropical Marine Science Institute at NUS, who is the second author of the paper.

Even though the barnacles’ natural waste removal pathways of moulting and excretion resulted in some removal of the nanoplastics, the team detected the continued presence of nanoplastics inside the barnacles throughout their growth until they reached adulthood.

“Barnacles may be at the lower levels of the food chain, but what they consume will be transferred to the organisms that eat them. In addition, plastics are capable of absorbing pollutants and chemicals from the water. These toxins may be transferred to the organisms if the particles of plastics are consumed, and can cause further damage to marine ecosystems and human health,” said marine biologist Dr Neo Mei Lin from the Tropical Marine Science Institute at NUS, who is one of the authors of the paper.

The team’s research findings were first published online in the journal ACS Sustainable Chemistry & Engineering in March 2018. The study was funded under the Marine Science Research and Development Programme of the National Research Foundation Singapore.

Next steps

The NUS research team seeks to further their understanding of the translocation of nanoparticles within the marine organisms and potential pathways of transfer in the marine ecosystem.

“The life span and fate of plastic waste materials in marine environment is a big concern at the moment owing to the large amounts of plastic waste and its potential impact on marine ecosystem and food security around the world. The team would like to explore such topics in the near future and possibly to come up with pathways to address such problems,” explained Associate Professor Suresh Valiyaveettil from the Department of Chemistry at the NUS Faculty of Science, who co-supervised the research.

The team is currently examining how nanoplastics affect other invertebrate model organisms to understand the impact of plastics on marine ecosystems.

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

Fate of Nanoplastics in Marine Larvae: A Case Study Using Barnacles, Amphibalanus amphitrite by Samarth Bhargava, Serina Siew Chen Lee, Lynette Shu Min Ying, Mei Lin Neo, Serena Lay-Ming Teo, and Suresh Valiyaveettil. ACS Sustainable Chem. Eng., 2018, 6 (5), pp 6932–6940 DOI: 10.1021/acssuschemeng.8b00766 Publication Date (Web): March 21, 2018

Copyright © 2018 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Other plastic nanoparticle postings:

While this doesn’t relate directly to aquatic life, the research focuses on how plastic degrades into plastic nanoparticles,

That’s it for now.

All-natural agrochemicals

Michael Berger in his May 4, 2018 Nanowerk Spotlight article highlights research into creating all natural agrochemicals,

Widespread use of synthetic agrochemicals in crop protection has led to serious concerns of environmental contamination and increased resistance in plant-based pathogenic microbes.

In an effort to develop bio-based and non-synthetic alternatives, nanobiotechnology researchers are looking to plants that possess natural antimicrobial properties.

Thymol, an essential oil component of thyme, is such a plant and known for its antimicrobial activity. However, it has low water solubility, which reduces its biological activity and limits its application through aqueous medium. In addition, thymol is physically and chemically unstable in the presence of oxygen, light and temperature, which drastically reduces its effectiveness.

Scientists in India have overcome these obstacles by preparing thymol nanoemulsions where thymol is converted into nanoscale droplets using a plant-based surfactant known as saponin (a glycoside of the Quillaja tree). Due to this encapsulation, thymol becomes physically and chemically stable in the aqueous medium (the emulsion remained stable for three months).

In their work, the researchers show that nanoscale thymol’s antibacterial and antifungal properties not only prevent plant disease but that it also enhances plant growth.

“It is exciting how nanoscale thymol is more active,” says Saharan [Dr. Vinod Saharan from the Nano Research Facility Lab, Department of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology, at Maharana Pratap University of Agriculture and Technology], who led this work in collaboration with Washington University in St. Louis and Haryana Agricultural University, Hisar. “We found that nanoscale droplets of thymol can easily pass through the surfaces of bacteria, fungi and plants and exhibit much faster and strong activity. In addition nanodroplets of thymol have a larger surface area, i.e. more molecules on the surface, so thymol becomes more active at the target sites.”

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

Thymol nanoemulsion exhibits potential antibacterial activity against bacterial pustule disease and growth promotory effect on soybean by Sarita Kumari, R. V. Kumaraswamy, Ram Chandra Choudhary, S. S. Sharma, Ajay Pal, Ramesh Raliya, Pratim Biswas, & Vinod Saharan. Scientific Reportsvolume 8, Article number: 6650 (2018) doi:10.1038/s41598-018-24871-5 Published: 27 April 2018

This paper is open access.

Final note

There is a Canadian company which specialises in nanoscale products for the agricultural sector, Vive Crop Protection. I don’t believe they claim their products are ‘green’ but due to the smaller quantities needed of Vive Crop Protection’s products, the environmental impact is less than that of traditional agrochemicals.

‘Green’ concrete with graphene

It’s thrilling and I hope they are able to commercialize this technology which makes concrete ‘greener’. From an April 23, 2018 news item on ScienceDaily,

A new greener, stronger and more durable concrete that is made using the wonder-material graphene could revolutionise the construction industry.

Experts from the University of Exeter [UK] have developed a pioneering new technique that uses nanoengineering technology to incorporate graphene into traditional concrete production.

The new composite material, which is more than twice as strong and four times more water resistant than existing concretes, can be used directly by the construction industry on building sites. All of the concrete samples tested are according to British and European standards for construction.

Crucially, the new graphene-reinforced concentre material also drastically reduced the carbon footprint of conventional concrete production methods, making it more sustainable and environmentally friendly.

The research team insist the new technique could pave the way for other nanomaterials to be incorporated into concrete, and so further modernise the construction industry worldwide.

I love the image they’ve included with the press materials (if they hadn’t told me I wouldn’t know that this is the ‘new’ concrete; to me, it looks just like the other stuff),

Caption: The new concrete developed using graphene by experts from the University of Exeter (credit: Dimitar Dimov / University of Exeter) Credit: Dimitar Dimov / University of Exeter

An April 23, 2018 University of Exeter press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item,  provides more details about the work, future applications, and its potential impact,

Professor Monica Craciun, co-author of the paper and from Exeter’s engineering department, said: “Our cities face a growing pressure from global challenges on pollution, sustainable urbanization and resilience to catastrophic natural events, amongst others.

“This new composite material is an absolute game-changer in terms of reinforcing traditional concrete to meets these needs. Not only is it stronger and more durable, but it is also more resistant to water, making it uniquely suitable for construction in areas which require maintenance work and are difficult to be accessed .

“Yet perhaps more importantly, by including graphene we can reduce the amount of materials required to make concrete by around 50 per cent — leading to a significant reduction of 446kg/tonne of the carbon emissions.

“This unprecedented range of functionalities and properties uncovered are an important step in encouraging a more sustainable, environmentally-friendly construction industry worldwide.”

Previous work on using nanotechnology has concentrated on modifying existing components of cement, one of the main elements of concrete production.

In the innovative new study, the research team has created a new technique that centres on suspending atomically thin graphene in water with high yield and no defects, low cost and compatible with modern, large scale manufacturing requirements.

Dimitar Dimov, the lead author and also from the University of Exeter added: “This ground-breaking research is important as it can be applied to large-scale manufacturing and construction. The industry has to be modernised by incorporating not only off-site manufacturing, but innovative new materials as well.

“Finding greener ways to build is a crucial step forward in reducing carbon emissions around the world and so help protect our environment as much as possible. It is the first step, but a crucial step in the right direction to make a more sustainable construction industry for the future.”

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

Ultrahigh Performance Nanoengineered Graphene–Concrete Composites for Multifunctional Applications by Dimitar Dimov, Iddo Amit, Olivier Gorrie, Matthew D. Barnes, Nicola J. Townsend, Ana I. S. Neves, Freddie Withers, Saverio Russo, and Monica Felicia Craciun. Advanced Functional Materials First published: 23 April 2018

This paper is open access.

View Dynamic Glass—intelligent windows sold commercially

At last, commercially available ‘smart’, that is, electrochromic windows.

An April 17, 2018 article by Conor Shine for Dallas News describes a change at the Dallas Fort Worth (DFW) International Airport that has cooled things down,

At DFW International Airport, the coolest seats in the house can be found near Gate A28.

That’s where the airport, working with California-based technology company View, has replaced a bank of tarmac-facing windows with panes coated in microscopic layers of electrochromic ceramic that significantly reduce the amount of heat and glare coming into the terminal.

The technology, referred to as dynamic glass, uses an electrical current to change how much light is let in and has been shown to reduce surface temperatures on gate area seats and carpets by as much as 15 degrees compared to standard windows. All that heat savings add up, with View estimating its product can cut energy costs by as much as 20 percent when the technology is deployed widely in a building.

At DFW Airport, the energy bill runs about $18 million per year, putting the potential savings from dynamic glass into the hundreds of thousands, or even millions of dollars, annually.

Besides the money, it’s an appealing set of characteristics for DFW Airport, which is North America’s only carbon-neutral airport and regularly ranks among the top large airports for customer experience in the world.

After installing the dynamic glass near Gate A28 and a nearby Twisted Root restaurant in September at a cost of $49,000, the airport is now looking at ordering more for use throughout its terminals, although how many and at what cost hasn’t been finalized yet.

On a recent weekday morning, the impact of the dynamic glass was on full display. As sunlight beamed into Gate A25, passengers largely avoided the seats near the standard windows, favoring shadier spots a bit further into the terminal.

A few feet away, the bright natural light takes on a subtle blue hue and the temperature near the windows is noticeably cooler. There, passengers seemed to pay no mind to sitting in the sun, with window-adjacent seats filling up quickly.

As View’s Jeff Platón, the company’s vice president of marketing, notes in the video, there are considerable savings to be had when you cut down on air conditioning,

View’s April 17, 2018 news release (PDF) about a study of their technology in use at the airport provides more detail,

View®, the leader in dynamic glass, today announced the results of a study on the impact of in-terminal passenger experience and its correlation to higher revenues and reduced operational expenses.The study, conducted at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport (DFW), found that terminal windows fitted with View Dynamic Glass overwhelmingly improved passenger comfort over conventional glass, resulting in an 83 percent increase in passenger dwell time at a preferred gate seat and a 102 percent increase in concession spending. The research study was conducted by DFW Airport, View, Inc., and an independent aviation market research group.

It’s been a long time (I’ve been waiting about 10 years) but it seems that commercially available ‘smart’ glass is here—at the airport, anyway.

ht/ April 20, 2018 news item on

Clean up oil spills (on water and/or land) with oil-eating bacterium

Quebec’s Institut national de la recherche scientifique (INRS) announced an environmentally friendly way of cleaning up oil spills in an April 9, 2018 news item on ScienceDaily,

From pipelines to tankers, oil spills and their impact on the environment are a source of concern. These disasters occur on a regular basis, leading to messy decontamination challenges that require massive investments of time and resources. But however widespread and serious the damage may be, the solution could be microscopic — Alcanivorax borkumensis — a bacterium that feeds on hydrocarbons. Professor Satinder Kaur Brar and her team at INRS have conducted laboratory tests that show the effectiveness of enzymes produced by the bacterium in degrading petroleum products in soil and water. Their results offer hope for a simple, effective, and eco-friendly method of decontaminating water and soil at oil sites.

An April 8, 2018 INRS news release by Stephanie Thibaut, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

In recent years, researchers have sequenced the genomes of thousands of bacteria from various sources. Research associate Dr.Tarek Rouissi poured over “technical data sheets” for many bacterial strains with the aim of finding the perfect candidate for a dirty job: cleaning up oil spills. He focused on the enzymes they produce and the conditions in which they evolve.

A. borkumensis, a non-pathogenic marine bacterium piqued his curiosity. The microorganism’s genome contains the codes of a number of interesting enzymes and it is classified as “hydrocarbonoclastic”—i.e., as a bacterium that uses hydrocarbons as a source of energy. A. borkumensis is present in all oceans and drifts with the current, multiplying rapidly in areas where the concentration of oil compounds is high, which partly explains the natural degradation observed after some spills. But its remedial potential had not been assessed.

“I had a hunch,” Rouissi said, “and the characterization of the enzymes produced by the bacterium seems to have proven me right!” A. borkumensis boasts an impressive set of tools: during its evolution, it has accumulated a range of very specific enzymes that degrade almost everything found in oil. Among these enzymes, the bacteria’shydroxylases stand out from the ones found in other species: they are far more effective, in addition to being more versatile and resistant to chemical conditions, as tested in coordination by a Ph.D. student, Ms. Tayssir Kadri.

To test the microscopic cleaner, the research team purified a few of the enzymes and used them to treat samples of contaminated soil. “The degradation of hydrocarbons using the crude enzyme extract is really encouraging and reached over 80% for various compounds,” said Brar. The process is effective in removing benzene, toluene, and xylene, and has been tested under a number of different conditions to show that it is a powerful way to clean up polluted land and marine environments.”

The next steps for Brar’s team are to find out more about how these bacteria metabolize hydrocarbons and explore their potential for decontaminating sites. One of the advantages of the approach developed at INRS is its application in difficult-to-access environments, which present a major challenge during oil spill cleanup efforts.

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

Ex-situ biodegradation of petroleum hydrocarbons using Alcanivorax borkumensis enzymes by Tayssir Kadri, Sara Magdouli, Tarek Rouissi, Satinder Kaur Brar. Biochemical Engineering Journal Volume 132, 15 April 2018, Pages 279-287 DOI:

This paper is behind a paywall.

In light of this research, it seems remiss not to mention the recent setback for Canada’s Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. Canada’s Federal Court of Appeal quashed the approval as per this August 30, 2018 news item on There were two reasons for the quashing (1) a failure to properly consult with indigenous people and (2) a failure to adequately assess environmental impacts on marine life. Interestingly, no one ever mentions environmental cleanups and remediation, which could be very important if my current suspicions regarding the outcome for the next federal election are correct.

Regardless of which party forms the Canadian government after the 2019 federal election, I believe that either Liberals or Conservatives would be equally dedicated to bringing this pipeline to the West Coast. The only possibility I can see of a change lies in a potential minority government is formed by a coalition including the NDP (New Democratic Party) and/or the Green Party; an outcome that seems improbable at this juncture.

Given what I believe to be the political will regarding the Trans Mountain pipeline, I would dearly love to see more support for better cleanup and remediation measures.

Create gold nanoparticles and nanowires with water droplets.

For some reason it took a lot longer than usual to find this research paper despite having the journal (Nature Communications), the title (Spontaneous formation …), and the authors’ names. Thankfully, success was wrested from the jaws of defeat (I don’t care if that is trite; it’s how I felt) and links, etc. follow at the end as usual.

An April 19, 2018 Stanford University news release (also on EurekAlert) spins fascinating tale,

An experiment that, by design, was not supposed to turn up anything of note instead produced a “bewildering” surprise, according to the Stanford scientists who made the discovery: a new way of creating gold nanoparticles and nanowires using water droplets.

The technique, detailed April 19 [2018] in the journal Nature Communications, is the latest discovery in the new field of on-droplet chemistry and could lead to more environmentally friendly ways to produce nanoparticles of gold and other metals, said study leader Richard Zare, a chemist in the School of Humanities and Sciences and a co-founder of Stanford Bio-X.

“Being able to do reactions in water means you don’t have to worry about contamination. It’s green chemistry,” said Zare, who is the Marguerite Blake Wilbur Professor in Natural Science at Stanford.

Noble metal

Gold is known as a noble metal because it is relatively unreactive. Unlike base metals such as nickel and copper, gold is resistant to corrosion and oxidation, which is one reason it is such a popular metal for jewelry.

Around the mid-1980s, however, scientists discovered that gold’s chemical aloofness only manifests at large, or macroscopic, scales. At the nanometer scale, gold particles are very chemically reactive and make excellent catalysts. Today, gold nanostructures have found a role in a wide variety of applications, including bio-imaging, drug delivery, toxic gas detection and biosensors.

Until now, however, the only reliable way to make gold nanoparticles was to combine the gold precursor chloroauric acid with a reducing agent such as sodium borohydride.

The reaction transfers electrons from the reducing agent to the chloroauric acid, liberating gold atoms in the process. Depending on how the gold atoms then clump together, they can form nano-size beads, wires, rods, prisms and more.

A spritz of gold

Recently, Zare and his colleagues wondered whether this gold-producing reaction would proceed any differently with tiny, micron-size droplets of chloroauric acid and sodium borohydide. How large is a microdroplet? “It is like squeezing a perfume bottle and out spritzes a mist of microdroplets,” Zare said.

From previous experiments, the scientists knew that some chemical reactions proceed much faster in microdroplets than in larger solution volumes.

Indeed, the team observed that gold nanoparticle grew over 100,000 times faster in microdroplets. However, the most striking observation came while running a control experiment in which they replaced the reducing agent – which ordinarily releases the gold particles – with microdroplets of water.

“Much to our bewilderment, we found that gold nanostructures could be made without any added reducing agents,” said study first author Jae Kyoo Lee, a research associate.

Viewed under an electron microscope, the gold nanoparticles and nanowires appear fused together like berry clusters on a branch.

The surprise finding means that pure water microdroplets can serve as microreactors for the production of gold nanostructures. “This is yet more evidence that reactions in water droplets can be fundamentally different from those in bulk water,” said study coauthor Devleena Samanta, a former graduate student in Zare’s lab and co-author on the paper.

If the process can be scaled up, it could eliminate the need for potentially toxic reducing agents that have harmful health side effects or that can pollute waterways, Zare said.

It’s still unclear why water microdroplets are able to replace a reducing agent in this reaction. One possibility is that transforming the water into microdroplets greatly increases its surface area, creating the opportunity for a strong electric field to form at the air-water interface, which may promote the formation of gold nanoparticles and nanowires.

“The surface area atop a one-liter beaker of water is less than one square meter. But if you turn the water in that beaker into microdroplets, you will get about 3,000 square meters of surface area – about the size of half a football field,” Zare said.

The team is exploring ways to utilize the nanostructures for various catalytic and biomedical applications and to refine their technique to create gold films.

“We observed a network of nanowires that may allow the formation of a thin layer of nanowires,” Samanta said.

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

Spontaneous formation of gold nanostructures in aqueous microdroplets by Jae Kyoo Lee, Devleena Samanta, Hong Gil Nam, & Richard N. Zare. Nature Communicationsvolume 9, Article number: 1562 (2018) doi:10.1038/s41467-018-04023-z Published online: 19 April 2018

Not unsurprisingly given Zare’s history as recounted in the news release, this paper is open access.

Café Scientifique Vancouver (Canada) talk on August 28th 2018: Getting the message: What is gene expression and why does it matter?

Here’s more about the latest Café Scientifique talk from an August  22, 2018 announcement received via email,

Our next café will happen on TUESDAY, AUGUST 28TH at 7:30PM in the back
room at YAGGER'S DOWNTOWN (433 W Pender [St., Vancouver]). Our speaker for the
evening will be DR. KATIE MARSHALL from the Department of Zoology at
UBC [University of British Columbia]. Her topic will be:


Many of us think that DNA is like a light switch; you have a particular
sequence of base pairs or a particular chromosome, and these directly
cause a large change in biological functioning. But the truth is that
any given gene can be up or downregulated through a dizzying array of
biochemical “dimmer switches” that finely control how much that
particular gene is expressed. Understanding how this works is key to
answering questions like “How does a sequence of base pairs in DNA
become a whole organism?” and “Why is it that every cell has the
same DNA sequence but different function?”. We’ll chat about the
advances in computing needed to answer these questions, the importance
of gene expression in disease, and how this science can help us
understand social issues better too.

I wasn’t able to find out too much more about Dr. Katie but there is this profile page on the UBC Zoology Department website,

The long-term goal of my research is to understand how abiotic stress filters through physiology to shape species abundance and distribution. While abiotic stressors such as temperature have been used very successfully to predict population growth, distribution, and diversity of insect species, integration of the mechanisms of how these stressors are experienced by individuals from alteration of physiology through to fitness impacts has lagged. Inclusion of these mechanisms is crucial for accurate modelling predictions of individual (and therefore population-level) responses. My research to date has focused on how the impact of frequency of stress (rather than the duration or intensity of stress) is a superior predictor of both survival and reproductive success , and used insect cold tolerance as a model system.

At UBC I’ll be focusing on the cold tolerance and cryobiology of invertebrates in the intertidal. These organisms face freezing stress through the winter, yet remarkably little is known about how they do so. I’ll also be investigating plasticity in cold tolerance by looking for interactive effects of ocean acidification and community composition on thermal tolerance.


Removing more than 99% of crude oil from ‘produced’ water (well water)

Should you have an oil well nearby (see The Urban Oil Fields of Los Angeles in an August 28, 2014 photo essay by Alan Taylor for The Atlantic for examples of oil wells in various municipalities and cities associated with LS) , this news from Texas may interest you.

From an August 15, 2018 news item on Nanowerk,

Oil and water tend to separate, but they mix well enough to form stable oil-in-water emulsions in produced water from oil reservoirs to become a problem. Rice University scientists have developed a nanoparticle-based solution that reliably removes more than 99 percent of the emulsified oil that remains after other processing is done.
The Rice lab of chemical engineer Sibani Lisa Biswal made a magnetic nanoparticle compound that efficiently separates crude oil droplets from produced water that have proven difficult to remove with current methods.

An August 15, 2018 Rice University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the work in more detail,

Produced water [emphasis mine] comes from production wells along with oil. It often includes chemicals and surfactants pumped into a reservoir to push oil to the surface from tiny pores or cracks, either natural or fractured, deep underground. Under pressure and the presence of soapy surfactants, some of the oil and water form stable emulsions that cling together all the way back to the surface.

While methods exist to separate most of the oil from the production flow, engineers at Shell Global Solutions, which sponsored the project, told Biswal and her team that the last 5 percent of oil tends to remain stubbornly emulsified with little chance to be recovered.

“Injected chemicals and natural surfactants in crude oil can oftentimes chemically stabilize the oil-water interface, leading to small droplets of oil in water which are challenging to break up,” said Biswal, an associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and of materials science and nanoengineering.

The Rice lab’s experience with magnetic particles and expertise in amines, courtesy of former postdoctoral researcher and lead author Qing Wang, led it to combine techniques. The researchers added amines to magnetic iron nanoparticles. Amines carry a positive charge that helps the nanoparticles find negatively charged oil droplets. Once they do, the nanoparticles bind the oil. Magnets are then able to pull the droplets and nanoparticles out of the solution.

“It’s often hard to design nanoparticles that don’t simply aggregate in the high salinities that are typically found in reservoir fluids, but these are quite stable in the produced water,” Biswal said.

The enhanced nanoparticles were tested on emulsions made in the lab with model oil as well as crude oil.

In both cases, researchers inserted nanoparticles into the emulsions, which they simply shook by hand and machine to break the oil-water bonds and create oil-nanoparticle bonds within minutes. Some of the oil floated to the top, while placing the test tube on a magnet pulled the infused nanotubes to the bottom, leaving clear water in between.

Best of all, Biswal said, the nanoparticles can be washed with a solvent and reused while the oil can be recovered. The researchers detailed six successful charge-discharge cycles of their compound and suspect it will remain effective for many more.

She said her lab is designing a flow-through reactor to process produced water in bulk and automatically recycle the nanoparticles. That would be valuable for industry and for sites like offshore oil rigs, where treated water could be returned to the ocean.

It seems to me that ‘produced water’ is another term for polluted water.I guess it’s the reverse to Shakespeare’s “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” with polluted water by any other name seeming more palatable.

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

Recyclable amine-functionalized magnetic nanoparticles for efficient demulsification of crude oil-in-water emulsions by Qing Wang, Maura C. Puerto, Sumedh Warudkar, Jack Buehler, and Sibani L. Biswal. Environ. Sci.: Water Res. Technol., 2018, Advance Article DOI: 10.1039/C8EW00188J First published on 15 Aug 2018

This paper is behind a paywall.

Rice has included this image amongst others in their news release,

Rice University engineers have developed magnetic nanoparticles that separate the last droplets of oil from produced water at wells. The particles draw in the bulk of the oil and are then attracted to the magnet, as demonstrated here. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

There’s also this video, which, in my book, borders on magical,

Better hair dyes with graphene and a cautionary note

Beauty products aren’t usually the first applications that come to mind when discussing graphene or any other research and development (R&D) as I learned when teaching a course a few years ago. But research and development  in that field are imperative as every company is scrambling for a short-lived competitive advantage for a truly new products or a perceived competitive advantage in a field where a lot of products are pretty much the same.

This March 15, 2018 news item on ScienceDaily describes graphene as a potential hair dye,

Graphene, a naturally black material, could provide a new strategy for dyeing hair in difficult-to-create dark shades. And because it’s a conductive material, hair dyed with graphene might also be less prone to staticky flyaways. Now, researchers have put it to the test. In an article published March 15 [2018] in the journal Chem, they used sheets of graphene to make a dye that adheres to the surface of hair, forming a coating that is resistant to at least 30 washes without the need for chemicals that open up and damage the hair cuticle.

Courtesy: Northwestern University

A March 15, 2018 Cell Press news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, fills in more the of the story,

Most permanent hair dyes used today are harmful to hair. “Your hair is covered in these cuticle scales like the scales of a fish, and people have to use ammonia or organic amines to lift the scales and allow dye molecules to get inside a lot quicker,” says senior author Jiaxing Huang, a materials scientist at Northwestern University. But lifting the cuticle makes the strands of the hair more brittle, and the damage is only exacerbated by the hydrogen peroxide that is used to trigger the reaction that synthesizes the dye once the pigment molecules are inside the hair.

These problems could theoretically be solved by a dye that coats rather than penetrates the hair. “However, the obvious problem of coating-based dyes is that they tend to wash out very easily,” says Huang. But when he and his team coated samples of human hair with a solution of graphene sheets, they were able to turn platinum blond hair black and keep it that way for at least 30 washes–the number necessary for a hair dye to be considered “permanent.”

This effectiveness has to do with the structure of graphene: it’s made of up thin, flexible sheets that can adapt to uneven surfaces. “Imagine a piece of paper. A business card is very rigid and doesn’t flex by itself. But if you take a much bigger sheet of newspaper–if you still can find one nowadays–it can bend easily. This makes graphene sheets a good coating material,” he says. And once the coating is formed, the graphene sheets are particularly good at keeping out water during washes, which keeps the water from eroding both the graphene and the polymer binder that the team also added to the dye solution to help with adhesion.

The graphene dye has additional advantages. Each coated hair is like a little wire in that it is able to conduct heat and electricity. This means that it’s easy for graphene-dyed hair to dissipate static electricity, eliminating the problem of flyaways on dry winter days. The graphene flakes are large enough that they won’t absorb through the skin like other dye molecules. And although graphene is typically black, its precursor, graphene oxide, is light brown. But the color of graphene oxide can be gradually darkened with heat or chemical reactions, meaning that this dye could be used for a variety of shades or even for an ombre effect.

What Huang thinks is particularly striking about this application of graphene is that it takes advantage of graphene’s most obvious property. “In many potential graphene applications, the black color of graphene is somewhat undesirable and something of a sore point,” he says. Here, though, it’s applied to a field where creating dark colors has historically been a problem.

The graphene used for hair dye also doesn’t need to be of the same high quality as it does for other applications. “For hair dye, the most important property is graphene being black. You can have graphene that is too lousy for higher-end electronic applications, but it’s perfectly okay for this. So I think this application can leverage the current graphene product as is, and that’s why I think that this could happen a lot sooner than many of the other proposed applications,” he says.

Making it happen is his next goal. He hopes to get funding to continue the research and make these dyes a reality for the people whose lives they would improve. “This is an idea that was inspired by curiosity. It was very fun to do, but it didn’t sound very big and noble when we started working on it,” he says. “But after we deep-dived into studying hair dyes, we realized that, wow, this is actually not at all a small problem. And it’s one that graphene could really help to solve.”

Northwestern University’s Amanda Morris also wrote a March 15, 2018 news release (it’s repetitive but there are some interesting new details; Note: Links have been removed),

It’s an issue that has plagued the beauty industry for more than a century: Dying hair too often can irreparably damage your silky strands.

Now a Northwestern University team has used materials science to solve this age-old problem. The team has leveraged super material graphene to develop a new hair dye that is less harmful [emphasis mine], non-damaging and lasts through many washes without fading. Graphene’s conductive nature also opens up new opportunities for hair, such as turning it into in situ electrodes or integrating it with wearable electronic devices.

Dying hair might seem simple and ordinary, but it’s actually a sophisticated chemical process. Called the cuticle, the outermost layer of a hair is made of cells that overlap in a scale-like pattern. Commercial dyes work by using harsh chemicals, such as ammonia and bleach, to first pry open the cuticle scales to allow colorant molecules inside and then trigger a reaction inside the hair to produce more color. Not only does this process cause hair to become more fragile, some of the small molecules are also quite toxic.

Huang and his team bypassed harmful chemicals altogether by leveraging the natural geometry of graphene sheets. While current hair dyes use a cocktail of small molecules that work by chemically altering the hair, graphene sheets are soft and flexible, so they wrap around each hair for an even coat. Huang’s ink formula also incorporates edible, non-toxic polymer binders to ensure that the graphene sticks — and lasts through at least 30 washes, which is the commercial requirement for permanent hair dye. An added bonus: graphene is anti-static, so it keeps winter-weather flyaways to a minimum.

“It’s similar to the difference between a wet paper towel and a tennis ball,” Huang explained, comparing the geometry of graphene to that of other black pigment particles, such as carbon black or iron oxide, which can only be used in temporary hair dyes. “The paper towel is going to wrap and stick much better. The ball-like particles are much more easily removed with shampoo.”

This geometry also contributes to why graphene is a safer alternative. Whereas small molecules can easily be inhaled or pass through the skin barrier, graphene is too big to enter the body. “Compared to those small molecules used in current hair dyes, graphene flakes are humongous,” said Huang, who is a member of Northwestern’s International Institute of Nanotechnology.

Ever since graphene — the two-dimensional network of carbon atoms — burst onto the science scene in 2004, the possibilities for the promising material have seemed nearly endless. With its ultra-strong and lightweight structure, graphene has potential for many applications in high-performance electronics, high-strength materials and energy devices. But development of those applications often require graphene materials to be as structurally perfect as possible in order to achieve extraordinary electrical, mechanical or thermal properties.

The most important graphene property for Huang’s hair dye, however, is simply its color: black. So Huang’s team used graphene oxide, an imperfect version of graphene that is a cheaper, more available oxidized derivative.

“Our hair dye solves a real-world problem without relying on very high-quality graphene, which is not easy to make,” Huang said. “Obviously more work needs to be done, but I feel optimistic about this application.”

Still, future versions of the dye could someday potentially leverage graphene’s notable properties, including its highly conductive nature.

“People could apply this dye to make hair conductive on the surface,” Huang said. “It could then be integrated with wearable electronics or become a conductive probe. We are only limited by our imagination.”

So far, Huang has developed graphene-based hair dyes in multiple shades of brown and black. Next, he plans to experiment with more colors.

Interestingly, the tiny note of caution”less harmful” doesn’t appear in the Cell Press news release. Never fear, Dr. Andrew Maynard (Director Risk Innovation Lab at Arizona State University) has written a March 20, 2018 essay on The Conversation suggesting a little further investigation (Note: Links have been removed),

Northwestern University’s press release proudly announced, “Graphene finds new application as nontoxic, anti-static hair dye.” The announcement spawned headlines like “Enough with the toxic hair dyes. We could use graphene instead,” and “’Miracle material’ graphene used to create the ultimate hair dye.”

From these headlines, you might be forgiven for getting the idea that the safety of graphene-based hair dyes is a done deal. Yet having studied the potential health and environmental impacts of engineered nanomaterials for more years than I care to remember, I find such overly optimistic pronouncements worrying – especially when they’re not backed up by clear evidence.

Tiny materials, potentially bigger problems

Engineered nanomaterials like graphene and graphene oxide (the particular form used in the dye experiments) aren’t necessarily harmful. But nanomaterials can behave in unusual ways that depend on particle size, shape, chemistry and application. Because of this, researchers have long been cautious about giving them a clean bill of health without first testing them extensively. And while a large body of research to date doesn’t indicate graphene is particularly dangerous, neither does it suggest it’s completely safe.

A quick search of scientific papers over the past few years shows that, since 2004, over 2,000 studies have been published that mention graphene toxicity; nearly 500 were published in 2017 alone.

This growing body of research suggests that if graphene gets into your body or the environment in sufficient quantities, it could cause harm. A 2016 review, for instance, indicated that graphene oxide particles could result in lung damage at high doses (equivalent to around 0.7 grams of inhaled material). Another review published in 2017 suggested that these materials could affect the biology of some plants and algae, as well as invertebrates and vertebrates toward the lower end of the ecological pyramid. The authors of the 2017 study concluded that research “unequivocally confirms that graphene in any of its numerous forms and derivatives must be approached as a potentially hazardous material.”

These studies need to be approached with care, as the precise risks of graphene exposure will depend on how the material is used, how exposure occurs and how much of it is encountered. Yet there’s sufficient evidence to suggest that this substance should be used with caution – especially where there’s a high chance of exposure or that it could be released into the environment.

Unfortunately, graphene-based hair dyes tick both of these boxes. Used in this way, the substance is potentially inhalable (especially with spray-on products) and ingestible through careless use. It’s also almost guaranteed that excess graphene-containing dye will wash down the drain and into the environment.

Undermining other efforts?

I was alerted to just how counterproductive such headlines can be by my colleague Tim Harper, founder of G2O Water Technologies – a company that uses graphene oxide-coated membranes to treat wastewater. Like many companies in this area, G2O has been working to use graphene responsibly by minimizing the amount of graphene that ends up released to the environment.

Yet as Tim pointed out to me, if people are led to believe “that bunging a few grams of graphene down the drain every time you dye your hair is OK, this invalidates all the work we are doing making sure the few nanograms of graphene on our membranes stay put.” Many companies that use nanomaterials are trying to do the right thing, but it’s hard to justify the time and expense of being responsible when someone else’s more cavalier actions undercut your efforts.

Overpromising results and overlooking risk

This is where researchers and their institutions need to move beyond an “economy of promises” that spurs on hyperbole and discourages caution, and think more critically about how their statements may ultimately undermine responsible and beneficial development of a technology. They may even want to consider using guidelines, such as the Principles for Responsible Innovation developed by the organization Society Inside, for instance, to guide what they do and say.

If you have time, I encourage you to read Andrew’s piece in its entirety.

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

Multifunctional Graphene Hair Dye by Chong Luo, Lingye Zhou, Kevin Chiou, and Jiaxing Huang. Chem DOI: Publication stage: In Press Corrected Proof

This paper appears to be open access.

*Two paragraphs (repetitions) were deleted from the excerpt of Dr. Andrew Maynard’s essay on August 14, 2018

More memory, less space and a walk down the cryptocurrency road

Libraries, archives, records management, oral history, etc. there are many institutions and names for how we manage collective and personal memory. You might call it a peculiarly human obsession stretching back into antiquity. For example, there’s the Library of Alexandria (Wikipedia entry) founded in the third, or possibly 2nd, century BCE (before the common era) and reputed to store all the knowledge in the world. It was destroyed although accounts differ as to when and how but its loss remains a potent reminder of memory’s fragility.

These days, the technology community is terribly concerned with storing ever more bits of data on materials that are reaching their limits for storage.I have news of a possible solution,  an interview of sorts with the researchers working on this new technology, and some very recent research into policies for cryptocurrency mining and development. That bit about cryptocurrency makes more sense when you read what the response to one of the interview questions.


It seems University of Alberta researchers may have found a way to increase memory exponentially, from a July 23, 2018 news item on ScienceDaily,

The most dense solid-state memory ever created could soon exceed the capabilities of current computer storage devices by 1,000 times, thanks to a new technique scientists at the University of Alberta have perfected.

“Essentially, you can take all 45 million songs on iTunes and store them on the surface of one quarter,” said Roshan Achal, PhD student in Department of Physics and lead author on the new research. “Five years ago, this wasn’t even something we thought possible.”

A July 23, 2018 University of Alberta news release (also on EurekAlert) by Jennifer-Anne Pascoe, which originated the news item, provides more information,

Previous discoveries were stable only at cryogenic conditions, meaning this new finding puts society light years closer to meeting the need for more storage for the current and continued deluge of data. One of the most exciting features of this memory is that it’s road-ready for real-world temperatures, as it can withstand normal use and transportation beyond the lab.

“What is often overlooked in the nanofabrication business is actual transportation to an end user, that simply was not possible until now given temperature restrictions,” continued Achal. “Our memory is stable well above room temperature and precise down to the atom.”

Achal explained that immediate applications will be data archival. Next steps will be increasing readout and writing speeds, meaning even more flexible applications.

More memory, less space

Achal works with University of Alberta physics professor Robert Wolkow, a pioneer in the field of atomic-scale physics. Wolkow perfected the art of the science behind nanotip technology, which, thanks to Wolkow and his team’s continued work, has now reached a tipping point, meaning scaling up atomic-scale manufacturing for commercialization.

“With this last piece of the puzzle now in-hand, atom-scale fabrication will become a commercial reality in the very near future,” said Wolkow. Wolkow’s Spin-off [sic] company, Quantum Silicon Inc., is hard at work on commercializing atom-scale fabrication for use in all areas of the technology sector.

To demonstrate the new discovery, Achal, Wolkow, and their fellow scientists not only fabricated the world’s smallest maple leaf, they also encoded the entire alphabet at a density of 138 terabytes, roughly equivalent to writing 350,000 letters across a grain of rice. For a playful twist, Achal also encoded music as an atom-sized song, the first 24 notes of which will make any video-game player of the 80s and 90s nostalgic for yesteryear but excited for the future of technology and society.

As noted in the news release, there is an atom-sized song, which is available in this video,

As for the nano-sized maple leaf, I highlighted that bit of whimsy in a June 30, 2017 posting.

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

Lithography for robust and editable atomic-scale silicon devices and memories by Roshan Achal, Mohammad Rashidi, Jeremiah Croshaw, David Churchill, Marco Taucer, Taleana Huff, Martin Cloutier, Jason Pitters, & Robert A. Wolkow. Nature Communicationsvolume 9, Article number: 2778 (2018) DOI: Published 23 July 2018

This paper is open access.

For interested parties, you can find Quantum Silicon (QSI) here. My Edmonton geography is all but nonexistent, still, it seems to me the company address on Saskatchewan Drive is a University of Alberta address. It’s also the address for the National Research Council of Canada. Perhaps this is a university/government spin-off company?

The ‘interview’

I sent some questions to the researchers at the University of Alberta who very kindly provided me with the following answers. Roshan Achal passed on one of the questions to his colleague Taleana Huff for her response. Both Achal and Huff are associated with QSI.

Unfortunately I could not find any pictures of all three researchers (Achal, Huff, and Wolkow) together.

Roshan Achal (left) used nanotechnology perfected by his PhD supervisor, Robert Wolkow (right) to create atomic-scale computer memory that could exceed the capacity of today’s solid-state storage drives by 1,000 times. (Photo: Faculty of Science)


I got started in this field about 6 years ago, when I undertook a MSc
with Dr. Wolkow here at the University of Alberta. Before that point, I
had only ever heard of a scanning tunneling microscope from what was
taught in my classes. I was aware of the famous IBM logo made up from
just a handful of atoms using this machine, but I didn’t know what
else could be done. Here, Dr. Wolkow introduced me to his line of
research, and I saw the immense potential for growth in this area and
decided to pursue it further. I had the chance to interact with and
learn from nanofabrication experts and gain the skills necessary to
begin playing around with my own techniques and ideas during my PhD.


One of the things missing from the list, that we are currently working
on, is the ability to easily communicate (electrically) from the
macroscale (our world) to the nanoscale, without the use of a scanning
tunneling microscope. With this, we would be able to then construct
devices using the other pieces we’ve developed up to this point, and
then integrate them with more conventional electronics. This would bring
us yet another step closer to the realization of atomic-scale


That is an interesting question. With the density we’ve achieved,
there are not too many surfaces where atomic sites are more closely
spaced to allow for another factor of two improvement. In that sense, it
would be difficult to improve memory densities further using these
techniques alone. In order to continue Moore’s law, new techniques, or
storage methods would have to be developed to move beyond atomic-scale

The memory design itself does not have anything to do with quantum
computing, however, the lithographic techniques developed through our
work, may enable the development of certain quantum-dot-based quantum
computing schemes.


I am not very familiar with these topics, however, co-author Taleana
Huff has provided some thoughts:

Taleana Huff (downloaded from]

“The memory, as we’ve designed it, might not have too much of an
impact in and of itself. Cryptocurrencies fall into two categories.
Proof of Work and Proof of Stake. Proof of Work relies on raw
computational power to solve a difficult math problem. If you solve it,
you get rewarded with a small amount of that coin. The problem is that
it can take a lot of power and energy for your computer to crunch
through that problem. Faster access to memory alone could perhaps
streamline small parts of this slightly, but it would be very slight.
Proof of Stake is already quite power efficient and wouldn’t really
have a drastic advantage from better faster computers.

Now, atomic-scale circuitry built using these new lithographic
techniques that we’ve developed, which could perform computations at
significantly lower energy costs, would be huge for Proof of Work coins.
One of the things holding bitcoin back, for example, is that mining it
is now consuming power on the order of the annual energy consumption
required by small countries. A more efficient way to mine while still
taking the same amount of time to solve the problem would make bitcoin
much more attractive as a currency.”

Thank you to Roshan Achal and Taleana Huff for helping me to further explore the implications of their work with Dr. Wolkow.


As usual, after receiving the replies I have more questions but these people have other things to do so I’ll content myself with noting that there is something extraordinary in the fact that we can imagine a near future where atomic scale manufacturing is possible and where as Achal says, ” … storage methods would have to be developed to move beyond atomic-scale [emphasis mine] storage”. In decades past it was the stuff of science fiction or of theorists who didn’t have the tools to turn the idea into a reality. With Wolkow’s, Achal’s, Hauff’s, and their colleagues’ work, atomic scale manufacturing is attainable in the foreseeable future.

Hopefully we’ll be wiser than we have been in the past in how we deploy these new manufacturing techniques. Of course, before we need the wisdom, scientists, as  Achal notes,  need to find a new way to communicate between the macroscale and the nanoscale.

As for Huff’s comments about cryptocurrencies and cyptocurrency and blockchain technology, I stumbled across this very recent research, from a July 31, 2018 Elsevier press release (also on EurekAlert),

A study [behind a paywall] published in Energy Research & Social Science warns that failure to lower the energy use by Bitcoin and similar Blockchain designs may prevent nations from reaching their climate change mitigation obligations under the Paris Agreement.

The study, authored by Jon Truby, PhD, Assistant Professor, Director of the Centre for Law & Development, College of Law, Qatar University, Doha, Qatar, evaluates the financial and legal options available to lawmakers to moderate blockchain-related energy consumption and foster a sustainable and innovative technology sector. Based on this rigorous review and analysis of the technologies, ownership models, and jurisdictional case law and practices, the article recommends an approach that imposes new taxes, charges, or restrictions to reduce demand by users, miners, and miner manufacturers who employ polluting technologies, and offers incentives that encourage developers to create less energy-intensive/carbon-neutral Blockchain.

“Digital currency mining is the first major industry developed from Blockchain, because its transactions alone consume more electricity than entire nations,” said Dr. Truby. “It needs to be directed towards sustainability if it is to realize its potential advantages.

“Many developers have taken no account of the environmental impact of their designs, so we must encourage them to adopt consensus protocols that do not result in high emissions. Taking no action means we are subsidizing high energy-consuming technology and causing future Blockchain developers to follow the same harmful path. We need to de-socialize the environmental costs involved while continuing to encourage progress of this important technology to unlock its potential economic, environmental, and social benefits,” explained Dr. Truby.

As a digital ledger that is accessible to, and trusted by all participants, Blockchain technology decentralizes and transforms the exchange of assets through peer-to-peer verification and payments. Blockchain technology has been advocated as being capable of delivering environmental and social benefits under the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. However, Bitcoin’s system has been built in a way that is reminiscent of physical mining of natural resources – costs and efforts rise as the system reaches the ultimate resource limit and the mining of new resources requires increasing hardware resources, which consume huge amounts of electricity.

Putting this into perspective, Dr. Truby said, “the processes involved in a single Bitcoin transaction could provide electricity to a British home for a month – with the environmental costs socialized for private benefit.

“Bitcoin is here to stay, and so, future models must be designed without reliance on energy consumption so disproportionate on their economic or social benefits.”

The study evaluates various Blockchain technologies by their carbon footprints and recommends how to tax or restrict Blockchain types at different phases of production and use to discourage polluting versions and encourage cleaner alternatives. It also analyzes the legal measures that can be introduced to encourage technology innovators to develop low-emissions Blockchain designs. The specific recommendations include imposing levies to prevent path-dependent inertia from constraining innovation:

  • Registration fees collected by brokers from digital coin buyers.
  • “Bitcoin Sin Tax” surcharge on digital currency ownership.
  • Green taxes and restrictions on machinery purchases/imports (e.g. Bitcoin mining machines).
  • Smart contract transaction charges.

According to Dr. Truby, these findings may lead to new taxes, charges or restrictions, but could also lead to financial rewards for innovators developing carbon-neutral Blockchain.

The press release doesn’t fully reflect Dr. Truby’s thoughtfulness or the incentives he has suggested. it’s not all surcharges, taxes, and fees constitute encouragement.  Here’s a sample from the conclusion,

The possibilities of Blockchain are endless and incentivisation can help solve various climate change issues, such as through the development of digital currencies to fund climate finance programmes. This type of public-private finance initiative is envisioned in the Paris Agreement, and fiscal tools can incentivize innovators to design financially rewarding Blockchain technology that also achieves environmental goals. Bitcoin, for example, has various utilitarian intentions in its White Paper, which may or may not turn out to be as envisioned, but it would not have been such a success without investors seeking remarkable returns. Embracing such technology, and promoting a shift in behaviour with such fiscal tools, can turn the industry itself towards achieving innovative solutions for environmental goals.

I realize Wolkow, et. al, are not focused on cryptocurrency and blockchain technology per se but as Huff notes in her reply, “… new lithographic techniques that we’ve developed, which could perform computations at significantly lower energy costs, would be huge for Proof of Work coins.”

Whether or not there are implications for cryptocurrencies, energy needs, climate change, etc., it’s the kind of innovative work being done by scientists at the University of Alberta which may have implications in fields far beyond the researchers’ original intentions such as more efficient computation and data storage.

ETA Aug. 6, 2018: Dexter Johnson weighed in with an August 3, 2018 posting on his Nanoclast blog (on the IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] website),

Researchers at the University of Alberta in Canada have developed a new approach to rewritable data storage technology by using a scanning tunneling microscope (STM) to remove and replace hydrogen atoms from the surface of a silicon wafer. If this approach realizes its potential, it could lead to a data storage technology capable of storing 1,000 times more data than today’s hard drives, up to 138 terabytes per square inch.

As a bit of background, Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer developed the first STM in 1986 for which they later received the Nobel Prize in physics. In the over 30 years since an STM first imaged an atom by exploiting a phenomenon known as tunneling—which causes electrons to jump from the surface atoms of a material to the tip of an ultrasharp electrode suspended a few angstroms above—the technology has become the backbone of so-called nanotechnology.

In addition to imaging the world on the atomic scale for the last thirty years, STMs have been experimented with as a potential data storage device. Last year, we reported on how IBM (where Binnig and Rohrer first developed the STM) used an STM in combination with an iron atom to serve as an electron-spin resonance sensor to read the magnetic pole of holmium atoms. The north and south poles of the holmium atoms served as the 0 and 1 of digital logic.

The Canadian researchers have taken a somewhat different approach to making an STM into a data storage device by automating a known technique that uses the ultrasharp tip of the STM to apply a voltage pulse above an atom to remove individual hydrogen atoms from the surface of a silicon wafer. Once the atom has been removed, there is a vacancy on the surface. These vacancies can be patterned on the surface to create devices and memories.

If you have the time, I recommend reading Dexter’s posting as he provides clear explanations, additional insight into the work, and more historical detail.