Category Archives: social implications

Sand and nanotechnology

There’s some good news coming out of the University of California, Riverside regarding sand and lithium-ion (li-ion) batteries, which I will temper with some additional information later in this posting.

First, the good news is that researchers have a new non-toxic, low cost way to produce a component in lithium-ion (li-ion) batteries according to a July 8, 2014 news item on ScienceDaily,

Researchers at the University of California, Riverside’s Bourns College of Engineering have created a lithium ion battery that outperforms the current industry standard by three times. The key material: sand. Yes, sand.

“This is the holy grail — a low cost, non-toxic, environmentally friendly way to produce high performance lithium ion battery anodes,” said Zachary Favors, a graduate student working with Cengiz and Mihri Ozkan, both engineering professors at UC Riverside.

The idea came to Favors six months ago. He was relaxing on the beach after surfing in San Clemente, Calif. when he picked up some sand, took a close look at it and saw it was made up primarily of quartz, or silicon dioxide.

His research is centered on building better lithium ion batteries, primarily for personal electronics and electric vehicles. He is focused on the anode, or negative side of the battery. Graphite is the current standard material for the anode, but as electronics have become more powerful graphite’s ability to be improved has been virtually tapped out.

A July 8, 2014 University of California at Riverside news release by Sean Nealon, which originated the news item, describes some of the problems with silicon as a replacement for graphite and how the researchers approached those problems,

Researchers are now focused on using silicon at the nanoscale, or billionths of a meter, level as a replacement for graphite. The problem with nanoscale silicon is that it degrades quickly and is hard to produce in large quantities.

Favors set out to solve both these problems. He researched sand to find a spot in the United States where it is found with a high percentage of quartz. That took him to the Cedar Creek Reservoir, east of Dallas, where he grew up.

Sand in hand, he came back to the lab at UC Riverside and milled it down to the nanometer scale, followed by a series of purification steps changing its color from brown to bright white, similar in color and texture to powdered sugar.

After that, he ground salt and magnesium, both very common elements found dissolved in sea water into the purified quartz. The resulting powder was then heated. With the salt acting as a heat absorber, the magnesium worked to remove the oxygen from the quartz, resulting in pure silicon.

The Ozkan team was pleased with how the process went. And they also encountered an added positive surprise. The pure nano-silicon formed in a very porous 3-D silicon sponge like consistency. That porosity has proved to be the key to improving the performance of the batteries built with the nano-silicon.

Now, the Ozkan team is trying to produce larger quantities of the nano-silicon beach sand and is planning to move from coin-size batteries to pouch-size batteries that are used in cell phones.

The research is supported by Temiz Energy Technologies. The UCR Office of Technology Commercialization has filed patents for inventions reported in the research paper.

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

Scalable Synthesis of Nano-Silicon from Beach Sand for Long Cycle Life Li-ion Batteries by Zachary Favors, Wei Wang, Hamed Hosseini Bay, Zafer Mutlu, Kazi Ahmed, Chueh Liu, Mihrimah Ozkan, & Cengiz S. Ozkan. Scientific Reports 4, Article number: 5623 doi:10.1038/srep05623 Published 08 July 2014

While this is good news, it does pose a conundrum of sorts. It seems that supplies of sand are currently under siege. A documentary, Sand Wars (2013) lays out the issues (from the Sand Wars website’s Synopsis page),

Most of us think of it as a complimentary ingredient of any beach vacation. Yet those seemingly insignificant grains of silica surround our daily lives. Every house, skyscraper and glass building, every bridge, airport and sidewalk in our modern society depends on sand. We use it to manufacture optical fiber, cell phone components and computer chips. We find it in our toothpaste, powdered foods and even in our glass of wine (both the glass and the wine, as a fining agent)!

Is sand an infinite resource? Can the existing supply satisfy a gigantic demand fueled by construction booms?  What are the consequences of intensive beach sand mining for the environment and the neighboring populations?

Based on encounters with sand smugglers, barefoot millionaires, corrupt politicians, unscrupulous real estate developers and environmentalists, this investigation takes us around the globe to unveil a new gold rush and a disturbing fact: the “SAND WARS” have begun.

Dr. Muditha D Senarath Yapa of John Keells Research at John Keells Holdings comments on the situation in Sri Lanka in his June 22, 2014 article (Nanotechnology – Depleting the most precious minerals for a few dollars) for The Nation,

Many have written for many years about the mineral sands of Pulmoddai. It is a national tragedy that for more than 50 years, we have been depleting the most precious minerals of our land for a few dollars. There are articles that appeared in various newspapers on how the mineral sands industry has boomed over the years. I hope the readers understand that it only means that we are depleting our resources faster than ever. According to the Lanka Mineral Sands Limited website, 90,000 tonnes of ilmenite, 9,000 tonnes of rutile, 5,500 tonnes of zircon, 100 tonnes of monazite and 4,000 tonnes of high titanium ilmenite are produced annually and shipped away to other countries.

… It is time for Sri Lanka to look at our own resources with this new light and capture the future nano materials market to create value added materials.

It’s interesting that he starts with the depletion of the sands as a national tragedy and ends with a plea to shift from a resource-based economy to a manufacturing-based economy. (This plea resonates strongly here in Canada where we too are a resource-based economy.)

Sidebar: John Keells Holdings is a most unusual company, from the About Us page,

In terms of market capitalisation, John Keells Holdings PLC is one of the largest listed conglomerate on the Colombo Stock Exchange. Other measures tell a similar tale; our group companies manage the largest number of hotel rooms in Sri Lanka, own the country’s largest privately-owned transportation business and hold leading positions in Sri Lanka’s key industries: tea, food and beverage manufacture and distribution, logistics, real estate, banking and information technology. Our investment in Sri Lanka is so deep and widely diversified that our stock price is sometimes used by international financial analysts as a benchmark of the country’s economy.

Yapa heads the companies research effort, which recently celebrated a synthetic biology agreement (from a May 2014 John Keells news release by Nuwan),

John Keells Research Signs an Historic Agreement with the Human Genetics Unit, Faculty of Medicine, University of Colombo to establish Sri Lanka’s first Synthetic Biology Research Programme.

Getting back to sand, these three pieces, ‘sand is good for li-ion batteries’, ‘sand is a diminishing resource’, and ‘let’s stop being a source of sand for other countries’ lay bare some difficult questions about our collective future on this planet.

If vat-grown burgers are here, what are the social implications?

The Jan. 17, 2013 news item on Nanowerk about Dr. Neil Stephens and his research into the social implications of vat-grown (aka, in vitro meat) poses some interesting questions,

he [sic] world’s first laboratory-grown hamburger has been produced by Professor Mark Post and his team in Maastricht, representing something radically new in our world. Dr Neil Stephens, Research Associate at Cesagen (Cardiff School of Social Sciences), has been researching the social and ethical issues of this technology and what this innovation in stem cell science might mean for us in 2013.

Will we be eating burgers made in test-tubes in the near future? That is probably unlikely considering Professor Post’s burger costs around £200,000 to produce.

The University of Cardiff Jan. 16, 2013 news release,which originated the news item, goes on to explain why Stephens is conducting this investigation,

However, the benefits this new technology can deliver – according to the scientists – include slaughter-free meat that is healthier and free from animal to human disease. The meat could also be grown during space travel and could have a much smaller environmental impact than today’s whole-animal reared meat. But it is not yet clear if any of these can be delivered in a marketable form.

Since 2008, Dr Stephens has been investigating these ‘social promises’ by interviewing most of the scientists across the world who are involved in this project. He looks to understand how this community of scientists came together and what strategies they use to justify the promises they make.

Professor Mark Post’s work at the University of Maastricht (Holland) was covered extensively last year when it was presented at the 2012 AAAS (American Ass0ciation for the Advancement of Science) meeting in Vancouver. This Feb. 19, 2012 article by Pallab Ghosh for BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) online highlights some of the discussion which took place then,

Dutch scientists have used stem cells to create strips of muscle tissue with the aim of producing the first lab-grown hamburger later this year.

The aim of the research is to develop a more efficient way of producing meat than rearing animals.

Professor Post’s group at Maastricht University in the Netherlands has grown small pieces of muscle about 2cm long, 1cm wide and about a mm thick.

They are off-white and resemble strips of calamari in appearance. These strips will be mixed with blood and artificially grown fat to produce a hamburger by the autumn [2012].

…Some estimate that food production will have to double within the next 50 years to meet the requirements of a growing population. During this period, climate change, water shortages and greater urbanisation will make it more difficult to produce food.

Prof Sean Smukler from the University of British Columbia said keeping pace with demand for meat from Asia and Africa will be particularly hard as demand from these regions will shoot up as living standards rise. He thinks that lab grown meat could be a good solution.

But David Steele, who is president of Earthsave Canada, said that the same benefits could be achieved if people ate less meat.

“While I do think that there are definite environmental and animal welfare advantages of this high-tech approach over factory farming, especially, it is pretty clear to me that plant-based alternatives… have substantial environmental and probably animal welfare advantages over synthetic meat,” he said.

Dr Steele, who is also a molecular biologist, said he was also concerned that unhealthily high levels of antibiotics and antifungal chemicals would be needed to stop the synthetic meat from rotting.

There doesn’t seem to be any more recent news about vat-grown meat from Post’s team at the University of Maastricht; the interest in Stephens’ sociological work on the topic seems to have been stimulated by his inclusion in the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council’s (ESRC) annual publication, (Britain in magazine) Britain in 2013.

Here’s more about Stephens’ and his sociological inquiry,

Is your utopia the same as my utopia? Michio Kaku talks about nanotechnology and his utopia

Dr. Michio Kaku, a prominent US theoretical physicist, claims the reason for the Shaker (religious) community’s (and other utopian communities too) disappearance was due largely to a lack of abundance in his Big Think video talk on the Social Europe Journal website, from the transcript,

Throughout human history people have tried to create utopia, the perfect society. In fact, America, the American dream, in some sense was based on utopianism. Why do we have the Shaker movement? Why did we have the Quakers? Why did we have so many different kinds of religious movements that fled Europe looking to create autopia here in the Americas? Well, we know the Shakers have disappeared and many of these colonies have also disappeared only to be found in footnotes in American textbooks, and the question is why?

One reason why is scarcity because back then the industrial revolution was still young and societies had scarcity. Scarcity creates conflict and unless you have a way to resolve conflict, your colony falls apart.

I have two questions here: (1) if scarcity cause conflict and problems, why aren’t all rich people happy and conflict-free?  (2) regarding the Shakers, wasn’t their policy of prohibiting sexual activity of any kind, i.e. lifelong celibacy, a larger problem? Kaku’s thesis is somewhat reductionist as per the Shaker essay on Wikipedia which suggests a number of interlocking issues,

Membership in the Shakers dwindled in the late 19th century for several reasons: people were attracted to cities and away from the farms; Shaker products could not compete with mass-produced products that became available at a much lower cost; and Shakers could not have children, so adoption was a major source of new members. This continued until orphanages were established and the states began to limit adoption by religious groups.

Kaku has a technology solution for the reductionist problem he has posed,

However, now we have nanotechnology, and with nanotechnology, perhaps, who knows, maybe in 100 years, we’ll have something called the replicator. Now the replicator is something you see in Star Trek. It’s called the molecular assembler and it takes ordinary raw materials, breaks them up at the atomic level and joins the joints in different ways to create new substances. If you have a molecular assembler, you can turn, for example, a glass into wood or vice versa. You would have the power of a magician, in fact, the power of a god, the ability to literally transform the atoms of one substance into another and we see it on Star Trek.

It’s also the most subversive device of all because if utopias fail because of scarcity then what happens when you have infinite abundance? [emphasis mine] What happens when you simply ask and it comes to you?

It’s as if Kaku was creating a question for the US television quiz programme, Jeopardy, where contestants have to construct the question for the answer that’s presented to them. e.g., Answer: nanotechnology will make infinite abundance possible Question: Will we then have utopia?

It’s an interesting question, I just wish it had been contextualized more thoughtfully.

What is a diamond worth?

A couple of diamond-related news items have crossed my path lately causing me to consider diamonds and their social implications. I’ll start first with the news items, according to an April 4, 2012 news item on physorg.com a quantum computer has been built inside a diamond (from the news item),

Diamonds are forever – or, at least, the effects of this diamond on quantum computing may be. A team that includes scientists from USC has built a quantum computer in a diamond, the first of its kind to include protection against “decoherence” – noise that prevents the computer from functioning properly.

I last mentioned decoherence in my July 21, 2011 posting about a joint (University of British Columbia, University of California at Santa Barbara and the University of Southern California) project on quantum computing.

According to the April 5, 2012 news item by Robert Perkins for the University of Southern California (USC),

The multinational team included USC professor Daniel Lidar and USC postdoctoral researcher Zhihui Wang, as well as researchers from the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, Iowa State University and the University of California, Santa Barbara. The findings were published today in Nature.

The team’s diamond quantum computer system featured two quantum bits, or qubits, made of subatomic particles.

As opposed to traditional computer bits, which can encode distinctly either a one or a zero, qubits can encode a one and a zero at the same time. This property, called superposition, along with the ability of quantum states to “tunnel” through energy barriers, some day will allow quantum computers to perform optimization calculations much faster than traditional computers.

Like all diamonds, the diamond used by the researchers has impurities – things other than carbon. The more impurities in a diamond, the less attractive it is as a piece of jewelry because it makes the crystal appear cloudy.

The team, however, utilized the impurities themselves.

A rogue nitrogen nucleus became the first qubit. In a second flaw sat an electron, which became the second qubit. (Though put more accurately, the “spin” of each of these subatomic particles was used as the qubit.)

Electrons are smaller than nuclei and perform computations much more quickly, but they also fall victim more quickly to decoherence. A qubit based on a nucleus, which is large, is much more stable but slower.

“A nucleus has a long decoherence time – in the milliseconds. You can think of it as very sluggish,” said Lidar, who holds appointments at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering and the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

Though solid-state computing systems have existed before, this was the first to incorporate decoherence protection – using microwave pulses to continually switch the direction of the electron spin rotation.

“It’s a little like time travel,” Lidar said, because switching the direction of rotation time-reverses the inconsistencies in motion as the qubits move back to their original position.

Here’s an image I downloaded from the USC webpage hosting Perkins’s news item,

The diamond in the center measures 1 mm X 1 mm. Photo/Courtesy of Delft University of Technolgy/UC Santa Barbara

I’m not sure what they were trying to illustrate with the image but I thought it would provide an interesting contrast to the video which follows about the world’s first purely diamond ring,

I first came across this ring in Laura Hibberd’s March 22, 2012 piece for Huffington Post. For anyone who feels compelled to find out more about it, here’s the jeweller’s (Shawish) website.

What with the posting about Neal Stephenson and Diamond Age (aka, The Diamond Age Or A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer; a novel that integrates nanotechnology into a story about the future and ubiquitous diamonds), a quantum computer in a diamond, and this ring, I’ve started to wonder about role diamonds will have in society. Will they be integrated into everyday objects or will they remain objects of desire? My guess is that the diamonds we create by manipulating carbon atoms will be considered everyday items while the ones which have been formed in the bowels of the earth will retain their status.

Socio-Technical Integration Research Workshop

The Synthetic Biology Project, a spin-off (of sorts) from the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies based in Washington, DC, is hosting a two-day workshop (Feb. 16 and 17, 2011) called Socio-Technical Integration Research (STIR). It is the fourth in the series. From the event page,

The Socio-Technical Integration Research project is conducting a coordinated set of 20 laboratory engagement studies to assess and compare the varying pressures on, and capacities for, laboratories to integrate broader societal considerations into their work. These studies will be conducted by ten doctoral students and will be aimed at guiding research decisions toward responsible innovation.

Please join us on February 16th and 17th to discuss these vital issues with a distinguished gathering of laboratory directors, embedded social scientists and research councils from around the world.

Discussion topics will include:

• Experiences in synergistically enhancing the creativity and responsibility of scientific research, • Responsible innovation from the viewpoints of natural scientists, social scientists and research agencies, and • The establishment of an international network of scientists and research agencies working toward responsible innovation.

STIR seeks to establish an International Network for Responsible Innovation and is organized under the auspices of the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University.

They ask anyone who plans to attend to RSVP or you can watch the webcast live (no need to RSVP the webcast).

I looked at the agenda for the event and unexpectedly found a Vancouver connection. One of the sessions is titled: Political Science and Genetics in Vancouver. It’s scheduled to be given by Shannon Conley and Courtney Hanna (PhD student in the Robinson Lab at the Children’s and Women’s Health Centre of British Columbia).

If you happen to take a look at the event agenda for yourself, you’ll also notice a fair sprinkling of nanotechnology-tinged presentations included in this workshop.

Nano Science Cafe workshop starts and other NISE Net tidbits

I signed up for an online workshop on how to host and produce a Nano Science Café that the Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network (NISE Net) holds. It started this Monday and so far we’ve been introducing ourselves (approximately 80 people are signed up) and people are sharing ideas about how to hold these events successfully.  Most of the participants are located in the US although there are two Canucks (me and someone from Ontario). Of course, not everyone has introduced themselves yet.

There’s a blog posting by Larry Bell about NISE Net’s increasing focus on nano’s societal implications,

Just about a year ago NISE Net launched an expanded collaboration with the Center for Nanotechnology in Society and you’ll hear more about upcoming activities in the months ahead. The conversation started when staff from seven science centers brought cart demos and stage presentations to the S.NET conference in Seattle on Labor Day weekend last year. S.NET is a new professional society for the study of nanoscience and emerging technologies in areas of the social sciences and humanities. I was a little naive and thought the participants were all social scientists, but learned that many were historians, political scientists, philosophers, and ethicists and really not social scientists.

I’m not entirely certain what to make of either NISE Net’s interest or S.NET (Society for the Study of Nanoscience and Emerging Technologies) since this first meeting seems to have be focused primarily on hands-on demos and public outreach initiatives. There will be a 2nd annual S.NET meeting in 2010 (from the conference info.),

Second Annual Conference of the Society for the Study of Nanoscience and Emerging Technologies

Darmstadt, Germany – Sept 29 to Oct 2, 2010

(Wednesday afternoon 2pm through Saturday afternoon 4pm)

The plenary speakers and program committee lists a few names I’ve come across,

This year’s plenary speakers are Armin Grunwald, Richard Jones [has written a book about nanotechnology titled Soft Machines and maintains a blog also titled Soft Machines], Andrew Light, Bernard Stiegler, and Jan Youtie.

Program Committee

Diana Bowman (Public Health and Law, University of Melbourne, Australia)

Julia Guivant (Sociology and Political Science, Santa Catarina, Brazil)

David Guston (Political Science/Center for Nanotechnology in Society, Arizona State University, USA) [guest blogged for Andrew Maynard at 2020 Science]

Barbara Herr Harthorn (Feminist Studies, Anthropology, Sociology/Center for Nanotechnology in Society,University of California Santa Barbara, USA)

Brice Laurent (Sociology, Mines ParisTech, France)

Colin Milburn (English, University of California Davis, USA)[has proposed a nanotechnology origins story which pre-dates Richard Feynman's famous speech, There's plenty of room at the bottom]

Cyrus Mody (History, Rice University, United USA)

Alfred Nordmann (Philosophy, nanoOffice, NanoCenter, Technische Universität Darmstadt and University of South Carolina – chair)

Ingrid Ott (Economics, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, Germany – co-chair)

Arie Rip (Philosophy of Science and Technology, University of Twente, Netherlands) [read a nano paper where he introduced me to blobology and this metaphor for nanotechnology 'furniture of the world']

Ursula Weisenfeld (Business Administration, Leuphana Universität, Lüneburg, Germany)

This looks promising and I wish the good luck with the conference.

As far conferences go, there’s another one for the Association of Science and Technology Centers (ASTC) in Hawaii, Oct 3 – 5, 2010, which will feature some NISE Net sessions and workshops . You can check out the ASTC conference details here.

Here’s the monthly NISE Net nano haiku,

Vocabulary
Kit kit kit kit kit kit kit
There are no nodes now.

by Anders Liljeholm of the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. Those of you who may not remember that our regional hubs used to be call nodes (or those looking to brush up on their NISE Net vocabulary in general) can check out the NISE Net Glossary in the nisenet.org catalog.