Category Archives: military

Bioceramic armour: tough and clear

This story about a mollusk and its armour eventually led me back to one of my favourite science writers, David L. Chandler at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). First, here’s an excerpt from a March 30, 2014 news item on ScienceDaily,

The shells of a sea creature, the mollusk Placuna placenta, are not only exceptionally tough, but also clear enough to read through. Now, researchers at MIT have analyzed these shells to determine exactly why they are so resistant to penetration and damage — even though they are 99 percent calcite, a weak, brittle mineral.

The shells’ unique properties emerge from a specialized nanostructure that allows optical clarity, as well as efficient energy dissipation and the ability to localize deformation, the researchers found. The results are published this week in the journal Nature Materials, in a paper co-authored by MIT graduate student Ling Li and professor Christine Ortiz.

A March 30, 2014 MIT press release (I’m not positive Chandler wrote this but he is the press contact) describes both the engineered bioceramic armour and the mollusk’s naturally occurring armour,

Engineered ceramic-based armor, while designed to resist penetration, often lacks the ability to withstand multiple blows, due to large-scale deformation and fracture that can compromise its structural integrity, Ortiz says. In transparent armor systems, such deformation can also obscure visibility.

Creatures that have evolved natural exoskeletons — many of them ceramic-based — have developed ingenious designs that can withstand multiple penetrating attacks from predators. The shells of a few species, such as Placuna placenta, are also optically clear.

To test exactly how the shells — which combine calcite with about 1 percent organic material — respond to penetration, the researchers subjected samples to indentation tests, using a sharp diamond tip in an experimental setup that could measure loads precisely. They then used high-resolution analysis methods, such as electron microscopy and diffraction, to examine the resulting damage.

The material initially isolates damage through an atomic-level process called “twinning” within the individual ceramic building blocks: A crystal breaks up into a pair of mirror-image regions that share a common boundary, rather like a butterfly’s wings. This twinning process occurs all around the stressed region, helping to form a kind of boundary that keeps the damage from spreading outward.

The MIT researchers found that twinning then activates “a series of additional energy-dissipation mechanisms … which preserve the mechanical and optical integrity of the surrounding material,” Li says. This produces a material that is 10 times more efficient in dissipating energy than the pure mineral, Li adds.

The properties of this natural armor make it a promising template for the development of bio-inspired synthetic materials for both commercial and military applications — such as eye and face protection for soldiers, windows and windshields, and blast shields, Ortiz says.

Huajian Gao, a professor of engineering at Brown University who was not involved in this research, calls it “an excellent and elegant piece of work.” He says it “successfully demonstrates the effectiveness of nanoscale deformation twins in energy dissipation in bioceramics, and should be able to inspire and guide the development of manmade ceramic materials.” He adds, “As a first-of-its-kind [demonstration of] the effectiveness of deformation twins in natural materials, this work should have huge practical impact.”

The work was supported by the National Science Foundation; the U.S. Army Research Office through the MIT Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies; the National Security Science and Engineering Faculty Fellowships Program; and the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering.

The researchers have produced an image showing how the mollusk shell reacts to being damaged,

A Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) image of the region surrounding an indentation the researchers made in a piece of shell from Placuna placenta. The image shows the localization of damage to the area immediately surrounding the stress. Image: Ling Li and James C. Weaver. Courtesy: MIT

A Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) image of the region surrounding an indentation the researchers made in a piece of shell from Placuna placenta. The image shows the localization of damage to the area immediately surrounding the stress.
Image: Ling Li and James C. Weaver. Courtesy: MIT

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

Pervasive nanoscale deformation twinning as a catalyst for efficient energy dissipation in a bioceramic armour by Ling Li & Christine Ortiz. Nature Materials (2014) doi:10.1038/nmat3920 Published online 30 March 2014

This paper is behind a paywall.

Smart suits for US soldiers—an update of sorts from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

The US military has funded a program named: ‘Dynamic Multifunctional Material for a Second Skin Program’ through its Defense Threat Reduction Agency’s (DTRA) Chemical and Biological Technologies Department and Sharon Gaudin’s Feb. 20,  2014 article for Computer World offers a bit of an update on this project,which was first reported in 2012,

A U.S. soldier is on patrol with his squad when he kneels to check something out, unknowingly putting his knee into a puddle of contaminants.

The soldier isn’t harmed, though, because he or she is wearing a smart suit that immediately senses the threat and transforms the material covering his knee into a protective state that repels the potential deadly bacteria.

Scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a federal government research facility in Livermore, Calif., are using nanotechnology to create clothing designed to protect U.S. soldiers from chemical and biological attacks.

“The threat is nanoscale so we need to work in the nano realm, which helps to keep it light and breathable,” said Francesco Fornasiero, a staff scientist at the lab. “If you have a nano-size threat, you need a nano-sized defense.”

Fornasiero said the task is a difficult one, and the suits may not be ready for the field for another 10 to 20 years. [emphasis mine]

One option is to use carbon nanotubes in a layer of the suit’s fabric. Sweat and air would be able to easily move through the nanotubes. However, the diameter of the nanotubes is smaller than the diameter of bacteria and viruses. That means they would not be able to pass through the tubes and reach the person wearing the suit.

However, chemicals that might be used in a chemical attack are small enough to fit through the nanotubes. To block them, researchers are adding a layer of polymer threads that extend up from the top of the nanotubes, like stalks of grass coming up from the ground.

The threads are designed to recognize the presence of chemical agents. When that happens, they swell and collapse on top of the nanotubes, blocking anything from entering them.

A second option that the Lawrence Livermore scientists are working on involves similar carbon nanotubes but with catalytic components in a polymer mesh that sits on top of the nanotubes. The components would destroy any chemical agents they come in contact with. After the chemicals are destroyed, they are shed off, enabling the suit to handle multiple attacks.

An October 6, 2012 (NR-12-10-06) Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) news release details the -project and the proponents,

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory scientists and collaborators are developing a new military uniform material that repels chemical and biological agents using a novel carbon nanotube fabric.

The material will be designed to undergo a rapid transition from a breathable state to a protective state. The highly breathable membranes would have pores made of a few-nanometer-wide vertically aligned carbon nanotubes that are surface modified with a chemical warfare agent-responsive functional layer. Response to the threat would be triggered by direct chemical warfare agent attack to the membrane surface, at which time the fabric would switch to a protective state by closing the CNT pore entrance or by shedding the contaminated surface layer.

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

To provide high breathability, the new composite material will take advantage of the unique transport properties of carbon nanotube pores, which have two orders of magnitude faster gas transport rates when compared with any other pore of similar size.

“We have demonstrated that our small-size prototype carbon nanotube membranes can provide outstanding breathability in spite of the very small pore sizes and porosity,” said Sangil Kim, another LLNL scientist in the Biosciences and Biotechnology Division. “With our collaborators, we will develop large area functionalized CNT membranes.”

Biological agents, such as bacteria or viruses, are close to 10 nanometers in size. Because the membrane pores on the uniform are only a few nanometers wide, these membranes will easily block biological agents.

However, chemical agents are much smaller in size and require the membrane pores to be able to react to block the threat. To create a multifunctional membrane, the team will surface modify the original prototype carbon nanotube membranes with chemical threat responsive functional groups. The functional groups on the membrane will sense and block the threat like gatekeepers on entrance. A second response scheme also will be developed: Similar to how a living skin peels off when challenged with dangerous external factors, the fabric will exfoliate upon reaction with the chemical agent. In this way, the fabric will be able to block chemical agents such as sulfur mustard (blister agent), GD and VX nerve agents, toxins such as staphylococcal enterotoxin and biological spores such as anthrax.

The project is funded for $13 million over five years with LLNL as the lead institution. The Livermore team is made up of Fornasiero [Francesco Fornasiero], Kim and Kuang Jen Wu. Other collaborators and institutions involved in the project include Timothy Swager at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Jerry Shan at Rutgers University, Ken Carter, James Watkins, and Jeffrey Morse at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, Heidi Schreuder-Gibson at Natick Soldier Research Development and Engineering Center, and Robert Praino at Chasm Technologies Inc.

“Development of chemical threat responsive carbon nanotube membranes is a great example of novel material’s potential to provide innovative solutions for the Department of Defense CB needs,” said Tracee Harris, the DTRA science and technology manager for the Dynamic Multifunctional Material for a Second Skin Program. “This futuristic uniform would allow our military forces to operate safely for extended time periods and successfully complete their missions in environments contaminated with chemical and biological warfare agents.”

The Laboratory has a history in developing carbon nanotubes for a wide range of applications including desalination. “We have an advanced carbon nanotube platform to build and expand to make advancements in the protective fabric material for this new project,” Wu said.

The new uniforms could be deployed in the field in less than 10 years. [emphasis mine]

Since Gaudin’s 2014 article quotes one of the LLNL’s scientists, Francesco Fornasiero, with an estimate for the suit’s deployment into the field as 10 – 20 years as opposed to the “less than 10 years” estimated in the news release, I’m guessing the problem has proved more complex than was first anticipated.

For anyone who’s interested in more details about  US soldiers and nanotechnology,

  • May 1, 2013 article by Max Cacas for Signal Online provides more details about the overall Smart Skin programme and its goals.
  • Nov. 15, 2013 article by Kris Walker for Azonano.com describes the Smart Skin project along with others including the intriguingly titled: ‘Warrior Web’.
  • website for MIT’s (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies Note: The MIT researcher mentioned in the LLNL news release is a faculty member of the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies.
  • website for the Defense Threat Reduction Agency

Integran’s 2013 SERDP Award and its hockey sticks

Integran, a company based in Mississauga (sometimes identified as Toronto), Ontario, has received an award for its nanostructured alloy, a replacement for poisonous copper-beryllium, according to a Feb. 13, 2014 news item on Azonano,

Toronto-based Integran Technologies Inc. (Integran) today announced that it has received the 2013 SERDP (Strategic Environmental Research and Defense Program) Project-of-the-Year Award for Weapons Systems and Platforms for the development of a nanostructured alloy for copper-beryllium replacement.

For decades, essential parts in fixed and rotary wing military platforms have been made with copper-beryllium alloys. Beryllium is particularly useful for this purpose because it is both lightweight and strong, a rare combination not found in most other metals. The problem is beryllium is a toxic material that can be harmful to workers who handle it during assembly and repair. Working with beryllium, which requires donning protective gear and taking extensive precautions, is costly and time-consuming.

The Feb. 12, 2014 Integran news release found on MarketWire but oddly not on the company’s website at this time (Feb. 13, 2014) and which originated the news item, describes the process in general terms,

With support from US DoD’s SERDP program and Industry Canada’s Strategic Aerospace and Defense Initiative (SADI) program, Integran developed and validated an electroforming process that produces a nanostructured alloy that matches the desirable properties of copper-beryllium, particularly for use as high load bushings. This pulsed electroplating process goes beyond merely coating a metal object. Rather, near-net-shape components are created that require little to no machining to achieve final dimensions, resulting in very little material waste. The work also showed this innovative process can be used successfully for large metal sheets and high conductivity wires, both of which are used in multiple military applications.

Integran’s Aerospace and Defense R&D Unit Manager Brandon Bouwhuis states, “The validation testing performed in this project demonstrates that these nanostructured alloys can meet or exceed the performance of copper beryllium in many applications, and could result in substantial cost savings for the US DoD and Canadian Military through the decreased use of toxic substances.”

There is no mention in this news release as to whether Integran’s replacement alloy might itself be poisonous or toxic in some form.

I checked the Integran website and found that it lists one product, Nanovate. I was not able to find any information about environmental testing but there is this on the company’s  Why Nanovate™? webpage (Note: Links have been removed),

Integran is a world leader in development and manufacturing of revolutionary electrodeposited (plated) nanocrystalline “Nanovate™” metals. Our nanotechnology enabled metals take advantage of the fine crystalline grain structure to achieve superior performance at reduced weight vs conventional material solutions. Our technology platform consists primarily of Nickel, Iron, Cobalt and Copper alloys that we use to create high performance parts that are:

  • Lighter, stronger, harder and cheaper than Aluminum
  • Corrosion and wear resistant
  • Shielded against low frequency magnetic interference
  • Efficiently absorb energy and noise

In addition to manufacturing products, we also provide services such as:

  • Plating on plastics, including polymers like polyamides (Nylon), PEEK and ABS

I have previously posted about Integran and its alloy many times including this April 16, 2012 posting referencing a Canadian government investment in the company’s technology.

As I was browsing the Integran website I found this on the company’s homepage,

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[downloaded from http://www.integran.com/default.aspx]

The quintessential Canadian enterpreneur’s dream, creating an ‘unbreakable’ hockey stick that never gets ‘tired’. According to a Nov. 7, 2013 posting on the Integran News Blog, the hockey stick was a Kickstarter project,

Congratulations to our partners, Colt Hockey, for meeting and exceeding their goal on Kickstarter to develop a higher performance and more durable composite hockey stick with PowerMetal Technologies.  The project exceeded expectations with over $100,000 raised from almost 500 supporters.

This news item seemed particularly à propos during the 2014 Olympics. Good luck to the Canadian women’s and men’s teams!

Introduction to nanotechnology with a focus on military, security, and surveillance applications

SIGNAL, a magazine produced by AFCEA INTERNATIONAL (Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association) has published in its December 2013 issue (or you can try this Table of Contents page) an introductory article to the topic in what appears to be a special section devoted to nanotechnology. The Dec. 1, 2013 article by Rita Boland (h/t Dec. 13, 2013 Azonano news item) does a good job of presenting a ‘big picture’ approach including nonmilitary and military  nanotechnology applications  by interviewing the main players in the US,

Nanotechnology is the new cyber, according to several major leaders in the field. Just as cyber is entrenched across global society now, nano is poised to be the major capabilities enabler of the next decades. Expert members from the National Nanotechnology Initiative representing government and science disciplines say nano has great significance for the military and the general public.

According to the initiative, its aim is to move discoveries from the laboratory into products for commercial and public benefit; encourage students and teachers to become involved in nanotechnology education; create a skilled work force and the supporting infrastructure and tools to advance nanotechnology; and support responsible development. The initiative involves more than two dozen government agencies, industry, academic partners and international participants.

For anyone who’s interested in nanotechnology but doesn’t want to get particularly technical about it, I recommend this article as a good overview of the possibilities being entertained by individuals presumably familiar with the current state of research.

I  also found this to be an opportunity to find out about SIGNAL and AFCEA. Starting with SIGNAL, (from the About SIGNAL page),,

Founded in 1946, SIGNAL Magazine covers the latest trends and techniques in topics that include C4ISR, information security, intelligence, electronics, homeland security, cyber technologies, cloud computing and all the programs or solutions that build on these and related disciplines.

Our aim is to deliver useful and innovative information that enables our readers to remain up to date on technology easier, to understand military, government and industry needs faster, and to excel in supporting global security through knowledge.

We’re More than a Magazine, We’re AFCEA

As the official publication of AFCEA, a well-known and respected organization that also has been serving government and military since 1946, SIGNAL is unique from other defense and government magazines and websites.

We are the only media group that consistently reaches the entire AFCEA community, often with access to news faster. Top level leaders, managers, technical experts and the industry that supports them trust the AFCEA brand for accurate, unbiased and ethical reporting.

As for AFCEA, I was quite fascinated to find out that it was founded by David Sarnoff for reasons I will mention after this excerpt from AFCEA’s About page,

Mission Statement

AFCEA is a 501(c)(6) non-profit  international organization that serves its members by providing a forum for the ethical exchange of information. AFCEA is dedicated to increasing knowledge through the exploration of issues relevant to its members in information technology, communications, and electronics for the defense, homeland security and intelligence communities.

AFCEA History

AFCEA’s founders, a group of communicators led by David Sarnoff, experienced first-hand how open dialogue and strong relationships between government and industry in times of peace can help ensure effective communications during wartime. In 1946, they established AFCEA from the U.S. Veterans Signal Association and the American Signal Corps Association with the goal of promoting communication, dialogue, and an open and ethical exchange of information between the public and private sectors. As the Association’s outreach has broadened, this goal remains the pillar of AFCEA International.

I first heard David Sarnoff’s name in an undergraduate communications lecture about the Titanic. Here’s more from the David Sarnoff Wikipedia essay (Note: All links have been removed),

David Sarnoff (Belarusian: Даві́д Сарно́ў, Russian: Дави́д Сарно́в, February 27, 1891 – December 12, 1971) was a Belarusian-born American businessman and pioneer of American radio and television. Throughout most of his career he led the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) in various capacities from shortly after its founding in 1919 until his retirement in 1970.

He ruled over an ever-growing telecommunications and consumer electronics empire that included both RCA and NBC, and became one of the largest companies in the world. Named a Reserve Brigadier General of the Signal Corps in 1945, Sarnoff thereafter was widely known as “The General.”[1]

Sarnoff is credited with Sarnoff’s law, which states that the value of a broadcast network is proportional to the number of viewers.

David Sarnoff was born to a Jewish family in Uzlyany, a small town in Belarus, to Abraham and Leah Sarnoff. Abraham Sarnoff emigrated to the United States and raised funds to bring the family. Sarnoff spent much of his early childhood in a cheder studying and memorizing the Torah. He immigrated with his mother and three brothers and one sister to New York City in 1900, where he helped support his family by selling newspapers before and after his classes at the Educational Alliance. In 1906 his father became incapacitated by tuberculosis, and at age 15 Sarnoff went to work to support the family.[2] He had planned to pursue a full-time career in the newspaper business, but a chance encounter led to a position as an office boy at the Commercial Cable Company. When his superior refused him unpaid leave for Rosh Hashanah, he joined the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company of America on September 30, 1906, and started a career of over 60 years in electronic communications.

Over the next 13 years Sarnoff rose from office boy to commercial manager of the company, learning about the technology and the business of electronic communications on the job and in libraries. He also served at Marconi stations on ships and posts on Siasconset, Nantucket and the New York Wanamaker Department Store. In 1911 he installed and operated the wireless equipment on a ship hunting seals off Newfoundland and Labrador, and used the technology to relay the first remote medical diagnosis from the ship’s doctor to a radio operator at Belle Isle with an infected tooth. [emphasis mine] The following year, he led two other operators at the Wanamaker station in an effort to confirm the fate of the Titanic.[3] [emphasis mine] Sarnoff falsely advanced himself both as the sole hero who stayed by his telegraph key for three days to receive information on the Titanic’s survivors and as the prescient prophet of broadcasting who predicted the medium’s rise in 1916.[2]

Due to its proximity to Europe, Newfoundland played a significant historical role in both communications and transportation technology.

Getting back to ACFEA, there are three Canadian chapters but only the Ottawa chapter appears to be active as of Dec. 18, 2013.

One final note,, in writing this piece I was reminded of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies (last mentioned here in a May 1, 2012 posting about sniffing overripe fruit.

Florida and its Advanced Development and Manufacturing (NANO-ADM) Center

A new ‘nano’ manufacturing facility to be located in Florida state is featured in a November 25, 2013 news item on Azonano,

Nanotherapeutics, Inc. announced today that on November 20, 2013, the Company held a Type C meeting with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”), providing an opportunity for the FDA to review and provide feedback on Nanotherapeutics’ plans for its Advanced Development and Manufacturing (NANO-ADM) Center facility to be located in Copeland Park, Alachua, FL.

The review and subsequent discussions with the FDA focused on its cGMP [Current Good Manufacturing Practice] manufacturing space, which will provide Nanotherapeutics with capabilities to develop and produce bulk vaccines and biologics for the Department of Defense (DOD), other government agencies and industry. The Company expressed its appreciation to the FDA for granting the meeting, which represents the achievement of a major milestone in the ongoing design of a successful NANO-ADM Center.

You can find out more about Nanotherapeutics, Inc. here and for anyone curious about cGMPs, there’s this page on the FDA website,

Current Good Manufacturing Practices (cGMPs) for human pharmaceuticals affect every American.  Consumers expect that each batch of medicines they take will meet quality standards so that they will be safe and effective.  Most people, however, are not aware of cGMPs, or how FDA assures that drug manufacturing processes meet these basic objectives.  Recently, FDA has announced a number of regulatory actions taken against drug manufacturers based on the lack of cGMPs.  This paper discusses some facts that may be helpful in understanding how cGMPs establish the foundation for drug product quality.

What are cGMPs?

cGMP refers to the Current Good Manufacturing Practice regulations enforced by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).  cGMPs provide for systems that assure proper design, monitoring, and control of manufacturing processes and facilities….

Prior to this latest announcement about the NANO-ADM, there was some information offered in the company’s Oct. 23, 2013 news release about the groundbreaking event,

Nanotherapeutics, Inc. today announced that a groundbreaking ceremony for its Advanced Development and Manufacturing Center (NANO-ADM) in Copeland Park, Alachua, FL, will be held this morning [Oct. 23, 2013] at 9:00 am ET. …

The ceremony celebrates the groundbreaking of the 30-acre NANO-ADM center being constructed through privately secured financing to fulfill the contract awarded to Nanotherapeutics by the US Department of Defence (DOD) earlier this year. … The goal of the contract is to enable faster and more effective development of medical countermeasures designed to treat and protect military populations against chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear attacks and outbreaks of naturally occurring, emerging and genetically engineered infectious diseases.

Nanotherapeutics and its network of 16 world-class teaming partners and collaborators for this project are currently able to furnish core services in response to the DOD’s requirements, should the need arise. … single-use equipment of one-of-a-kind, 165,000 square foot facility. The NANO-ADM Center will integrate new biomanufacturing technologies with existing capabilities enabling the development of both small molecule and biologic products. …

The Nov. 21, 2013 news release, which originated the news item on Azonano, provided this additional detail,

Construction of the NANO-ADM Center is scheduled for completion in early 2015, with commissioning, qualification and full occupancy expected by mid-March 2015.

It seems to me that while New York State has garnered a lot of attention for its nanotechnology model, as evidenced by a book on the topic: New York’s Nanotechnology Model: Building the Innovation Economy: Summary of a Symposium (2013), and much more, Florida has been quietly establishing itself as another center for nanotechnology and innovation.

Chameleon materials

Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences researchers discovered some unexpected properties when testing a new coating according to an Oct. 22, 2013 news item on Azonano,

Active camouflage has taken a step forward at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), with a new coating that intrinsically conceals its own temperature to thermal cameras.

In a laboratory test, a team of applied physicists placed the device on a hot plate and watched it through an infrared camera as the temperature rose. Initially, it behaved as expected, giving off more infrared light as the sample was heated: at 60 degrees Celsius it appeared blue-green to the camera; by 70 degrees it was red and yellow. At 74 degrees it turned a deep red—and then something strange happened. The thermal radiation plummeted. At 80 degrees it looked blue, as if it could be 60 degrees, and at 85 it looked even colder. Moreover, the effect was reversible and repeatable, many times over.

The Oct. 21, 2013 Harvard University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, discusses the potential for this discovery and describes the process of discovery in more detail (Note: A link has been removed),

Principal investigator Federico Capasso, Robert L. Wallace Professor of Applied Physics and Vinton Hayes Senior Research Fellow in Electrical Engineering at Harvard SEAS, predicts that with only small adjustments the coating could be used as a new type of thermal camouflage or as a kind of encrypted beacon to allow soldiers to covertly communicate their locations in the field.

The secret to the technology lies within a very thin film of vanadium oxide, an unusual material that undergoes dramatic electronic changes when it reaches a particular temperature. At room temperature, for example, pure vanadium oxide is electrically insulating, but at slightly higher temperatures it transitions to a metallic, electrically conductive state. During that transition, the optical properties change, too, which means special temperature-dependent effects—like infrared camouflage—can also be achieved.

The insulator-metal transition has been recognized in vanadium oxide since 1959. However, it is a difficult material to work with: in bulk crystals, the stress of the transition often causes cracks to develop and can shatter the sample. Recent advances in materials synthesis and characterization—especially those by coauthor Shriram Ramanathan, Associate Professor of Materials Science at Harvard SEAS—have allowed the creation of extremely pure samples of thin-film vanadium oxide, enabling a burst of new science and engineering to take off in just the last few years.

“Thanks to these very stable samples that we’re getting from Prof. Ramanathan’s lab, we now know that if we introduce small changes to the material, we can dramatically change the optical phenomena we observe,” explains lead author Mikhail Kats, a graduate student in Capasso’s group at Harvard SEAS. “By introducing impurities or defects in a controlled way via processes known as doping, modifying, or straining the material, it is possible to create a wide range of interesting, important, and predictable behaviors.”

By doping vanadium oxide with tungsten, for example, the transition temperature can be brought down to room temperature, and the range of temperatures over which the strange thermal radiation effect occurs can be widened. Tailoring the material properties like this, with specific outcomes in mind, may enable engineering to advance in new directions.

The researchers say a vehicle coated in vanadium oxide tiles could potentially mimic its environment like a chameleon, appearing invisible to an infrared camera with only very slight adjustments to the tiles’ actual temperature—a far more efficient system than the approaches in use today.

Tuned differently, the material could become a component of a secret beacon, displaying a particular thermal signature on cue to an infrared surveillance camera. Capasso’s team suggests that the material could be engineered to operate at specific wavelengths, enabling simultaneous use by many individually identifiable soldiers.

And, because thermal radiation carries heat, the researchers believe a similar effect could be employed to deliberately speed up or slow down the cooling of structures ranging from houses to satellites.

The Harvard team’s most significant contribution is the discovery that nanoscale structures that appear naturally in the transition region of vanadium oxide can be used to provide a special level of tunability, which can be used to suppress thermal radiation as the temperature rises. The researchers refer to such a spontaneously structured material as a “natural, disordered metamaterial.”

“To artificially create such a useful three-dimensional structure within a material is extremely difficult,” says Capasso. “Here, nature is giving us what we want for free. By taking these natural metamaterials and manipulating them to have all the properties we want, we are opening up a new area of research, a completely new direction of work. We can engineer new devices from the bottom up.”

Here’s an image, from the scientists, illustrating the material’s thermal camouflage (or chameleon) properties,

A new coating intrinsically conceals its own temperature to thermal cameras. (Image courtesy of Mikhail Kats.)

A new coating intrinsically conceals its own temperature to thermal cameras. (Image courtesy of Mikhail Kats.)

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

Vanadium Dioxide as a Natural Disordered Metamaterial: Perfect Thermal Emission and Large Broadband Negative Differential Thermal Emittance by Mikhail A. Kats, Romain Blanchard, Shuyan Zhang, Patrice Genevet, Changhyun Ko, Shriram Ramanathan, and Federico Capasso. Phys. Rev. X » Volume 3 » Issue 4  or Phys. Rev. X 3, 041004 (2013) DOI:10.1103/PhysRevX.3.041004

This paper is published in an open access journal according to the Harvard news release,

About Physical Review X

Launched in August 2011, PRX (http://prx.aps.org) is an open-access, peer-reviewed publication of the American Physical Society (www.aps.org), a non-profit membership organization working to advance and diffuse the knowledge of physics through its outstanding research journals, scientific meetings, and education, outreach, advocacy and international activities. APS represents 50,000 members, including physicists in academia, national laboratories and industry in the United States and throughout the world.

‘Silverized’ clothing and wearable electronics

A July 30, 2013 news item on ScienceDaily features a technique for printing silver directly onto fibres,

Scientists at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), the UK’s National Measurement Institute, have developed a way to print silver directly onto fibres. This new technique could make integrating electronics into all types of clothing simple and practical. This has many potential applications in sports, health, medicine, consumer electronics and fashion.

Most current plans for wearable electronics require weaving conductive materials into fabrics, which offer limited flexibility and can only be achieved when integrated into the design of the clothing from the start. [emphasis mine] NPL’s technique could allow lightweight circuits to be printed directly onto complete garments.

The July 30, 2013 National Physical Laboratory news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, provides a little more detail,

Silver coated fibres created using this technique are flexible and stretchable, meaning circuits can be easily printed onto many different types of fabric, including wool which is knitted in tight loops.

The technique involves chemically bonding a nano‐silver layer onto individual fibres to a thickness of 20 nm. The conductive silver layer fully encapsulates fibres and has good adhesion and excellent conductivity.

The researchers don’t appear to have published a paper but there is a bit more information on the NPL’s Smart Textiles webpage,

At NPL the Electronics Interconnection group has developed a new method to produce conductive textiles. This new technique could make integrating electronics into all types of clothing simple and practical by enabling lightweight circuits to be printed directly onto complete garments.

The nano silver material is chemically bonded to the fabric, encapsulating the fibres and providing full coverage. The resulting textile demonstrates good adhesion, flexibility and is stretchable achieving excellent resistivity of 0.2 Ω/sq.

My May 9, 2012 posting concerns a project where batteries were being woven into textiles for the US military.

DARPA (US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), nanoparticles, and your traumatized brain

According to the May 10, 2013 news item on Nanowerk,

DARPA, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, has awarded $6 million to a team of researchers to develop nanotechnology therapies for the treatment of traumatic brain injury and associated infections.

Led by Professor Michael J. Sailor, Ph.D., from the University of California San Diego [UC San Diego], the award brings together a multi-disciplinary team of renowned experts in laboratory research, translational investigation and clinical medicine, including Erkki Ruoslahti, M.D., Ph.D. of Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute, Sangeeta N. Bhatia, M.D., Ph.D. of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Clark C. Chen, M.D., Ph.D. of UC San Diego School of Medicine.

Ballistics injuries that penetrate the skull have amounted to 18 percent of battlefield wounds sustained by men and women who served in the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the most recent estimate from the Joint Theater Trauma Registry, a compilation of data collected during Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.

“A major contributor to the mortality associated with a penetrating brain injury is the elevated risk of intracranial infection,” said Chen, a neurosurgeon with UC San Diego Health System, noting that projectiles drive contaminated foreign materials into neural tissue.

The May 9, 2013 UC San Diego news release by Susan Brown, which originated the news item, describes the reasons why DARPA wants to use nanoparticles in therapies for people suffering from traumatic brain injury,

Under normal conditions, the brain is protected from infection by a physiological system called the blood-brain barrier. “Unfortunately, those same natural defense mechanisms make it difficult to get antibiotics to the brain once an infection has taken hold,” said Chen, associate professor and vice-chair of research in the Division of Neurosurgery at UC San Diego School of Medicine.

DARPA hopes to meet these challenges with nanotechnology. The agency awarded this grant under its In Vivo Nanoplatforms for Therapeutics program to construct nanoparticles that can find and treat infections and other damage associated with traumatic brain injuries.

“Our approach is focused on porous nanoparticles that contain highly effective therapeutics on the inside and targeting molecules on the outside,” said Sailor, the UC San Diego materials chemist who leads the team. “When injected into the blood stream, we have found that these silicon-based particles can target certain tissues very effectively.”

Several types of nanoparticles have already been approved for clinical use in patients, but none for treatment of trauma or diseases in the brain. This is due in part to the inability of nanoparticle formulations to cross the blood-brain barrier and reach their intended targets.

“Poor penetration into tissues limits the application of nanoparticles to the treatment of many types of diseases,” said Ruoslahti, distinguished professor at Sanford-Burnham and partner in the research. “We are trying to overcome this limitation using targeting molecules that activate tissue-specific transport pathways to deliver nanoparticles.”

There is another major hurdle for treating brain injuries (from the news release),

Treating brain infections is becoming more difficult as drug-resistant strains of viruses and bacteria have emerged. Because drug-resistant strains mutate and evolve rapidly, researchers must constantly adjust their approach to treatment.

In an attempt to hit this moving target, the team is making their systems modular, so they can be reconfigured “on-the-fly” with the latest therapeutic advances.

Nanocomplexes that contain genetic material known as short interfering RNA, or siRNA, developed by Bhatia’s research group at MIT, will be key to this aspect of the team’s approach.

“The function of this type of RNA is that it specifically intereferes with processes in a diseased cell. The advantage of RNA therapies are that they can be quickly and easily modified when a new disease target emerges,” said Bhatia, a bioengineering professor at MIT and partner in the research.

But effective delivery of siRNA-based therapeutics in the body has proven to be a challenge because the negative charge and chemical structure of naked siRNA makes it very unstable in the body and it has difficulty crossing into diseased cells. To solve these problems, Bhatia has developed nanoparticles that form a protective coating around siRNA.

“The nanocomplexes we are developing shield the negative charge of RNA and protect it from nucleases that would normally destroy it. Adding Erkki’s tissue homing and cell-penetrating peptides allows the nanocomplex to transport deep into tissue and enter the diseased cells,” she said.

Bhatia has previously used the cell-penetrating nanocomplex to deliver siRNA to a tumor cell and shut down its protein production machinery. Although her group’s effort has focused on cancer, the team is now going after two other hard-to-treat cell types: drug-resistant bacteria and inflammatory cells in the brain.

“The work proposed by this multi-disciplinary team should provide new tools to mitigate the debilitating effects of penetrating brain injuries and offer our warfighters the best chance of meaningful recovery,” Chen said. [emphasis mine]

BTW, the term ‘warfighters’ is new to me; are we replacing the word ‘soldier’?

Returning to the matter at hand, I found DARPA’s In Vivo Nanoplatforms for Therapeutics program which is described this way on its home page,

Disease limits soldier readiness and creates healthcare costs and logistics burdens. Diagnosing and treating disease faster can help limit its impact. [emphasis mine] Current technologies and products for diagnosing disease are principally relegated to in vitro (in the lab) medical devices, which are often expensive, bulky and fragile.

DARPA’s In Vivo Nanoplatforms (IVN) program seeks to develop new classes of adaptable nanoparticles for persistent, distributed, unobtrusive physiologic and environmental sensing as well as the treatment of physiologic abnormalities, illness and infectious disease.

The IVN Diagnostics (IVN:Dx) program effort aims to develop a generalized in vivo platform that provides continuous physiological monitoring for the warfighter. [emphasis mine] Specifically, IVN:Dx will investigate technologies that may provide:

  • Implantable nanoplatforms using bio-compatible and nontoxic materials
  • In vivo sensing of small and large molecules of biological interest
  • Multiplexed detection of analytes at clinically relevant concentrations
  • External interrogation of the nanoplatform free from any implanted communications electronics
  • Complete system demonstration in a large animal

The IVN Therapeutics (IVN:Tx) program effort will seek unobtrusive nanoplatforms for rapidly treating disease in warfighters.

(I see DARPA is using both soldier and warfighter’.)

This team is not the only one wishing to deliver drug therapies in a targeted fashion to the brain. My Feb. 19, 2013 posting mentioned Chad Mirkin (Northwestern University) and his team’s efforts with spherical nucleic acids (SNAs), from the posting,

Potential applications include using SNAs to carry nucleic acid-based therapeutics to the brain for the treatment of glioblastoma, the most aggressive form of brain cancer, as well as other neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. Mirkin is aggressively pursuing treatments for such diseases with Alexander H. Stegh, an assistant professor of neurology at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine. (originally excerpted from this the Feb. 15, 2013 news release on EurekAlert)

Coincidentally, Mirkin has just been named ‘Chemistry World Entrepreneur of the Year’ by the UK’s Royal Society of Chemistry, from the May 10, 2013 news item on Nanowerk,

Northwestern University scientist Chad A. Mirkin, a world-renowned leader in nanotechnology research and its application, has been named 2013 Chemistry World Entrepreneur of the Year by the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC). The award recognizes an individual’s contribution to the commercialization of research.

The RSC is honoring Mirkin for his invention of spherical nucleic acids (SNAs), new globular forms of DNA and RNA. These structures form the basis for more than 300 products commercialized by licensees of the technology.

I’m never quite sure what to make of researchers who receive public funding then patent and license the results of that research.

Getting back to soldiers/warfighters, I’m glad to see this research being pursued. Years ago, a physician mentioned to me that soldiers in Iraq were surviving injuries that would have killed them in previous conflicts. The problem is that the same protective gear which insulates soldiers against many injuries makes them vulnerable to abusive head trauma (same principle as ‘shaken baby syndrome’). For example, imagine having a high velocity bullet hit your helmet. You’re protected from the bullet but the impact shakes your head so violently, your brain is injured.

Sea sponges inspire body armour of the future

A Mar. 15, 2013 news item on ScienceDaily features research inspired by sea sponges,

Scientists at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) and the Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research (MPI-P) in Germany have created a new synthetic hybrid material with a mineral content of almost 90 percent, yet extremely flexible. They imitated the structural elements found in most sea sponges and recreated the sponge spicules using the natural mineral calcium carbonate and a protein of the sponge. Natural minerals are usually very hard and prickly, as fragile as porcelain.

Amazingly, the synthetic spicules are superior to their natural counterparts in terms of flexibility, exhibiting a rubber-like flexibility. The synthetic spicules can, for example, easily be U-shaped without breaking or showing any signs of fracture. …

Spicules are structural elements found in most sea sponges. They provide structural support and deter predators. They are very hard, prickly, and even quite difficult to cut with a knife. The spicules of sponges thus offer a perfect example of a lightweight, tough, and impenetrable defense system, which may inspire engineers to create body armors of the future.

I found an image of a sea sponge (this may not be exactly the same type of sponge that inspired the latest work but I think there are enough similarities to the description the researchers give to  include it here) and more information in a Nov. 13, 2008 post by Ed Grabianows on IO9.com,

Downloaded from: http://io9.com/5085064/giant-deep-sea-sponges-evolved-fiber-optic-exoskeletons

Downloaded from: http://io9.com/5085064/giant-deep-sea-sponges-evolved-fiber-optic-exoskeletons

This gigantic sea sponge has an exoskeleton made of glass rods, and each rod can grow up to a meter in length. In the deep sea, these massive sponges contain a menagerie of other tiny lifeforms, all dependent on their sea sponge hosts for something in short supply far under the water. They need light – and some sponges have a [sic] evolved a way to provide it using fiber optics.Sea sponges are among the most primitive animals on Earth. …

Here’s more about the research (from the ScienceDaily news item),

 The researchers led by Wolfgang Tremel, Professor at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, and Hans-Jürgen Butt, Director at the Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research in Mainz, used these natural sponge spicules as a model to cultivate them in the lab. The synthetic spicules were made from calcite (CaCO3) and silicatein-α. The latter is a protein from siliceous sponges that, in nature, catalyzes the formation of silica, which forms the natural silica spicules of sponges. Silicatein-α was used in the lab setting to control the self-organization of the calcite spicules. The synthetic material was self-assembled from an amorphous calcium carbonate intermediate and silicatein and subsequently aged to the final crystalline material. After six months, the synthetic spicules consisted of calcite nanocrystals aligned in a brick wall fashion with the protein embedded like cement in the boundaries between the calcite nanocrystals. The spicules were of 10 to 300 micrometers in length with a diameter of 5 to 10 micrometers.

… the synthetic spicules have yet another special characteristic, i.e., they are able to transmit light waves even when they are bent.

The researchers have created a video animation to illustrate their work,

For those who would like to find out more about the research, there’s a citation for and a link to the researchers’ paper here.

Anti-exorcist engineers create ghosts but not in a killing kind of way

Generally speaking most of us would choose to exorcise ghosts but there are scientists who are working to create them as a Feb. 19, 2013 news item on ScienceDaily notes,

A team at the NUS [National University of Singapore] Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering led by Dr Qiu Cheng-Wei has come out with an optical device to “engineer” ghosts.

When someone claims he or she has seen a ghost, the phenomenon may be caused by an optical illusion happening through a wild stroke of nature. But the actual engineering of such a phenomenon is the holy grail of researchers in the field of optical illusions, electromagnetic, and radar detection — not only because of the thrill and excitement of being able to create a “ghost” but because of the implications it will have in science and applications.

Their research has opened up a completely new avenue for cognitive deception through light-matter behaviour control. [emphasis mine] This would have wide applications in defence and security. Their findings will also pave the way for the design of new optical and microwave devices such as those for detection and communication. The team will further develop this technique to make larger microwave devices to achieve radar “ghosts” and aircraft camouflage suitable for defence purpose.

Dr Qiu’s paper, co-authored with and Dr Han Tiancheng (NUS Dept of Electrical & Computer Engineering), Prof Tie Jun Cui, Dr Wei Xiang Jiang (State Key Laboratory of Millimeter Waves, Department of Radio Engineering, Nanjing), and Prof Shuang Zhang (School of Physics and Astronomy, University of Birmingham, UK), entitled “Creation of Ghost Illusions Using Metamaterials in Wave Dynamics” will be published in Advanced Functional Materials in March 2013.

…  Dr Qiu’s device can create multiple “ghosts.” It can also make the real object or person “disappear.” The researchers can also determine how the “ghosts” look, taking on a different shape or size from the actual object.

I would imagine that magicians and con artists everywhere would also be very interested in ‘creating ghosts’ and ‘disappearing’. In fact, this might have applications in the fields of design and architecture. What if you could create a beautiful view by making a series of parking lots and dull concrete buildings disappear and replacing them with ‘ghost mountains or beaches’? No doubt this thinking is so wishful it could be described as science fiction at this time. Still, it is amusing to speculate.

For those with more practical interests, you can get the full citation for the forthcoming published study from the ScienceDaily news item or you can preview an earlier version of the article at arXiv.org (open access),

Creation of Ghost Illusions Using Metamaterials in Wave Dynamics by Weixiang Jiang, Cheng-Wei Qiu, Tiancheng Han, Shuang Zhang, Tiejun Cui (Submitted on 16 Jan 2013) arXiv.org > physics > arXiv:1301.3710

Happily, there’s a more or less song-appropriate choice for this work about creating ghosts, Exorcising Ghosts. Here’s the promo for the song,

You can find John Piccari performing his entire song here, http://youtu.be/dJkESTf4EyI.