Category Archives: military

Israeli scientists help us “sniff out” bombs

A July 23, 2014 news item on ScienceDaily describes the situation regarding bombs and other explosive devices and the Israelie research,

Security forces worldwide rely on sophisticated equipment, trained personnel, and detection dogs to safeguard airports and other public areas against terrorist attacks. A revolutionary new electronic chip with nano-sized chemical sensors is about to make their job much easier.

The groundbreaking nanotechnology-inspired sensor, devised by Prof. Fernando Patolsky of Tel Aviv University’s School of Chemistry and Center for Nanoscience and Nanotechnology, and developed by the Herzliya company Tracense, picks up the scent of explosives molecules better than a detection dog’s nose. Research on the sensor was recently published in the journal Nature Communications.

Existing explosives sensors are expensive, bulky and require expert interpretation of the findings. In contrast, the new sensor is mobile, inexpensive, and identifies in real time — and with great accuracy — explosives in the air at concentrations as low as a few molecules per 1,000 trillion.

A July 23, 2014 American Friends of Tel Aviv University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, gives more detail about the research and potential product,

“Using a single tiny chip that consists of hundreds of supersensitive sensors, we can detect ultra low traces of extremely volatile explosives in air samples, and clearly fingerprint and differentiate them from other non-hazardous materials,” said Prof. Patolsky, a top researcher in the field of nanotechnology. “In real time, it detects small molecular species in air down to concentrations of parts-per-quadrillion, which is four to five orders of magnitude more sensitive than any existing technological method, and two to three orders of magnitude more sensitive than a dog’s nose.

“This chip can also detect improvised explosives, such as TATP (triacetone triperoxide), used in suicide bombing attacks in Israel and abroad,” Prof. Patolsky added.

The clusters of nano-sized transistors used in the prototype are extremely sensitive to chemicals, which cause changes in the electrical conductance of the sensors upon surface contact. When just a single molecule of an explosive comes into contact with the sensors, it binds with them, triggering a rapid and accurate mathematical analysis of the material.

“Animals are influenced by mood, weather, state of health and working hours, the oversaturation of olfactory system, and much more,” said Prof. Patolsky. “They also cannot tell us what they smell. Automatic sensing systems are superior candidates to dogs, working at least as well or better than nature. This is not an easy task, but was achieved through the development of novel technologies such as our sensor.”

The trace detector, still in prototype, identifies several different types of explosives several meters from the source in real time. It has been tested on the explosives TNT, RDX, and HMX, used in commercial blasting and military applications, as well as peroxide-based explosives like TATP and HMTD. The latter are commonly used in homemade bombs and are very difficult to detect using existing technology.

“Our breakthrough has the potential to change the way hazardous materials are detected, and of course should provide populations with more security,” said Prof. Patolsky. “The faster, more sensitive detection of tiny amounts of explosives in the air will provide for a better and safer world.”

Tracense has invested over $10M in research and development of the device since 2007, and expects to go to market next year [2015]. Prof.Patolsky and his team of researchers are currently performing multiple and extensive field tests of prototype devices of the sensor.

Here’s a link to and a citation for a recent paper by Professor Patolsky and his team,

Supersensitive fingerprinting of explosives by chemically modified nanosensors arrays by Amir Lichtenstein, Ehud Havivi, Ronen Shacham, Ehud Hahamy, Ronit Leibovich, Alexander Pevzner, Vadim Krivitsky, Guy Davivi, Igor Presman, Roey Elnathan, Yoni Engel, Eli Flaxer, & Fernando Patolsky. Nature Communications 5, Article number: 4195 doi:10.1038/ncomms5195 Published 24 June 2014 Updated online 09 July 2014

This paper is behind a paywall but a free preview is available via ReadCube Access.

A warning for when it’s “too hot to handle”

Who hasn’t picked up something that was hotter than you thought although you probably don’t have an example as extreme as this in a July 8, 2014 news item on Azonano,

… during the war in Iraq, for example, where soldiers reported temperatures near munitions that had sometimes exceeded 190 degrees F, far in excess of the shells’ design limits.

“It would have been helpful to have had some sort of a calibrated temperature-triggered signal warning, ‘Don’t go near or pick up this shell!’ “said Zafar Iqbal, a research professor in the Department of Chemistry and Environmental Science, who led the joint NJIT/ARDEC [New Jersey Institute of Technology/U.S. Army Armament Research Development and Engineering Center] research team. Referred to as a “thermal-indicating composition” and applied as a coating or a mark on packaging, the material turns different shades of color from blue to red in response to a range of temperatures, beginning at about 95 degrees F. It was awarded a U.S. patent in May of this year.

A July 3, 2014 NJIT news release, which originated the news item, describes the research and the researcher,

“We essentially modified commercial paints and introduced nanotechnology-based concepts to tailor the trigger temperatures,” Iqbal explained, adding that his laboratory is starting to develop inks related to the paints that can be applied by inkjet printers.

His current research came out of earlier work at Honeywell, then Allied Corp., leading to a “smart coating” embedded with color-sensitive materials that indicated how long a substance had been exposed to temperatures high enough to compromise its functionality. The time-temperature device has been widely used by the World Health Organization, for example, on vaccine packaging labels.

Time-temperature coding is also important for munitions, which can be stored for many years and transported long distances. Until now, there has been no cost-effective means for identifying when munitions have experienced critical exposures, including over a period of several days. Thermal stabilizers incorporated in weapon containers can be depleted by extended exposure to high temperatures. Iqbal said the coding will be included in the thermal-indicating paints as an element of the final product for the Army.

The technology has potentially wider applications as well, including as a temperature indicator for factory machines and household appliances and tools signaling they have become dangerously hot, or as a warning to firefighters of the intensity of a fire on the other side of a door coated with the thermal paint. Several large corporations expressed preliminary interest in it at a recent expo. The patent is jointly owned by NJIT and the U.S. Army; NJIT plans to commercialize the technology.

Iqbal, who is currently working on a book entitled “Nanomaterials Science and Technology” to be published by Cambridge University Press, has been awarded 22 U.S. patents on a wide range of technologies.

He has collaborated with the U.S. Army over the years since joining the Feltman Research Laboratory at Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey in 1969, two years after earning his Ph.D. at Cambridge University, where he conducted research at the renowned Cavendish Lab, the site of such major scientific advances as the discovery of the electron and the double-helix structure of DNA. He was a research scientist for the Army until 1977, before he returned to teaching and research for several years and then served as a senior principal scientist and project manager for nearly 20 years at Honeywell and its predecessor companies, Allied and Allied Signal, before joining NJIT.

Iqbal is currently developing a related technology that would signal whether a product has been damaged by force, shock or exposure to dangerous chemicals, such as carcinogens, or to radiation.

“A smart coded coating is like a smart skin – it will provide a visual or sensing signal to tell you if there is a problem,” he says, noting that sports helmets used in American football would be one potential application, helping coaches to determine whether a player has received a damaging blow to the head.

There is at least one sensing project for helmets and the detection of serious injury as per my Nov. 7, 2013 posting: Nanotechnology-enabled football helmets could help to determine if players have a concussion as per Iqbal’s last suggestion for a potential application of his sensing technology.

Harvest water from desert air with carbon nanotube cups (competition for NBD Nano?)

It’s been a while since I’ve seen Pulickel Ajayan’s name in a Rice University (Texas) news release and I wonder if this is the beginning of a series. I’ve noticed that researchers often publish a series of papers within a few months and then become quiet for two or more years as they work in their labs to gather more information.

This time the research from Pulickel’s lab has focused on the use of carbon nanotubes to harvest water from desert air. From a June 12, 2014 news item on Azonano,

If you don’t want to die of thirst in the desert, be like the beetle. Or have a nanotube cup handy.

New research by scientists at Rice University demonstrated that forests of carbon nanotubes can be made to harvest water molecules from arid desert air and store them for future use.

The invention they call a “hygroscopic scaffold” is detailed in a new paper in the American Chemical Society journal Applied Materials and Interfaces.

Researchers in the lab of Rice materials scientist Pulickel Ajayan found a way to mimic the Stenocara beetle, which survives in the desert by stretching its wings to capture and drink water molecules from the early morning fog.

Here’s more about the research from a June 11, 2014 Rice University news release (by Mike Williams?), which originated the news item,

They modified carbon nanotube forests grown through a process created at Rice, giving the nanotubes a superhydrophobic (water-repelling) bottom and a hydrophilic (water loving) top. The forest attracts water molecules from the air and, because the sides are naturally hydrophobic, traps them inside.

“It doesn’t require any external energy, and it keeps water inside the forest,” said graduate student and first author Sehmus Ozden. “You can squeeze the forest to take the water out and use the material again.”

The forests grown via water-assisted chemical vapor deposition consist of nanotubes that measure only a few nanometers (billionths of a meter) across and about a centimeter long.

The Rice team led by Ozden deposited a superhydrophobic layer to the top of the forest and then removed the forest from its silicon base, flipped it and added a layer of hydrophilic polymer to the other side.

In tests, water molecules bonded to the hydrophilic top and penetrated the forest through capillary action and gravity. (Air inside the forest is compressed rather then expelled, the researchers assumed.) Once a little water bonds to the forest canopy, the effect multiplies as the molecules are drawn inside, spreading out over the nanotubes through van der Waals forces, hydrogen bonding and dipole interactions. The molecules then draw more water in.

The researchers tested several variants of their cup. With only the top hydrophilic layer, the forests fell apart when exposed to humid air because the untreated bottom lacked the polymer links that held the top together. With a hydrophilic top and bottom, the forest held together but water ran right through.

But with a hydrophobic bottom and hydrophilic top, the forest remained intact even after collecting 80 percent of its weight in water.

The amount of water vapor captured depends on the air’s humidity. An 8 milligram sample (with a 0.25-square-centimeter surface) pulled in 27.4 percent of its weight over 11 hours in dry air, and 80 percent over 13 hours in humid air. Further tests showed the forests significantly slowed evaporation of the trapped water.

If it becomes possible to grow nanotube forests on a large scale, the invention could become an efficient, effective water-collection device because it does not require an external energy source, the researchers said.

Ozden said the production of carbon nanotube arrays at a scale necessary to put the invention to practical use remains a bottleneck. “If it becomes possible to make large-scale nanotube forests, it will be a very easy material to make,” he said.

This is not the first time researchers have used the Stenocara beetle (also known as the Namib desert beetle) as inspiration for a water-harvesting material. In a Nov. 26, 2012 posting I traced the inspiration  back to 2001 while featuring the announcement of a new startup company,

… US startup company, NBD Nano, which aims to bring a self-filling water bottle based on Namib desert beetle to market,

NBD Nano, which consists of four recent university graduates and was formed in May [2012], looked at the Namib Desert beetle that lives in a region that gets about half an inch of rainfall per year.

Using a similar approach, the firm wants to cover the surface of a bottle with hydrophilic (water-attracting) and hydrophobic (water-repellent) materials.

The work is still in its early stages, but it is the latest example of researchers looking at nature to find inspiration for sustainable technology.

“It was important to apply [biomimicry] to our design and we have developed a proof of concept and [are] currently creating our first fully-functional prototype,” Miguel Galvez, a co-founder, told the BBC.

“We think our initial prototype will collect anywhere from half a litre of water to three litres per hour, depending on local environments.”

You can find out more about NBD Nano here although they don’t give many details about the material they’ve developed. Given that MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) researchers published a  paper about a polymer-based material laced with silicon nanoparticles inspired by the Namib beetle in 2006 and that NBD Nano is based Massachusetts, I believe NBD Nano is attempting to commercialize the material or some variant developed at MIT.

Getting back to Rice University and carbon nanotubes, this is a different material attempting to achieve the same goal, harvesting water from desert air. Here’s a link to and a citation for the latest paper inspired by the Stenocara beetle (Namib beetle),

Anisotropically Functionalized Carbon Nanotube Array Based Hygroscopic Scaffolds by Sehmus Ozden, Liehui Ge , Tharangattu N. Narayanan , Amelia H. C. Hart , Hyunseung Yang , Srividya Sridhar , Robert Vajtai , and Pulickel M Ajayan. ACS Appl. Mater. Interfaces, DOI: 10.1021/am5022717 Publication Date (Web): June 4, 2014

Copyright © 2014 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

One final note, the research at MIT was funded by DARPA (US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). According to the news release the Rice University research held interest for similar agencies,

The U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative supported the research.

Climb like a gecko (in DARPA’s [US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] Z-Man program)

I’m not entirely certain why DARPA (US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) has now issued a news release (h/t June 5, 2014 news item on Nanowerk) about this achievement (a human climbing like a Gecko) which seems to have first occurred in 2012 but perhaps they want to emphasize that this particular demonstration occurred on a glass wall. In any event, I’m happy to get more news about DARPA’s Z-Man program. From the June 5, 2014 DARPA news release,

DARPA’s Z-Man program has demonstrated the first known human climbing of a glass wall using climbing devices inspired by geckos. The historic ascent involved a 218-pound climber ascending and descending 25 feet of glass, while also carrying an additional 50-pound load in one trial, with no climbing equipment other than a pair of hand-held, gecko-inspired paddles. [emphasis mine] The novel polymer microstructure technology used in those paddles was developed for DARPA by Draper Laboratory of Cambridge, Mass. [Massachusetts]

Historically, gaining the high ground has always been an operational advantage for warfighters, but the climbing instruments on which they’re frequently forced to rely—tools such as ropes and ladders—have not advanced significantly for millennia. Not only can the use of such tools be overt and labor intensive, they also only allow for sequential climbing whereby the first climber often takes on the highest risk.

DARPA created the Z-Man program to overcome these limitations and deliver maximum safety and flexibility for maneuver and rapid response to warfighters operating in tight urban environments. The goal of the program is to develop biologically inspired climbing aids to enable warfighters carrying a full combat load to scale vertical walls constructed from typical building materials.

“The gecko is one of the champion climbers in the Animal Kingdom, so it was natural for DARPA to look to it for inspiration in overcoming some of the maneuver challenges that U.S. forces face in urban environments,” said Dr. Matt Goodman, the DARPA program manager for Z-Man. “Like many of the capabilities that the Department of Defense pursues, we saw with vertical climbing that nature had long since evolved the means to efficiently achieve it. The challenge to our performer team was to understand the biology and physics in play when geckos climb and then reverse-engineer those dynamics into an artificial system for use by humans.”

Geckos can climb on a wide variety of surfaces, including smooth surfaces like glass, with adhesive pressures of 15-30 pounds per square inch for each limb, meaning that a gecko can hang its entire body by one toe. The anatomy of a gecko toe consists of a microscopic hierarchical structure composed of stalk-like setae (100 microns in length, 2 microns in radius). From individual setae, a bundle of hundreds of terminal tips called spatulae (approximately 200 nanometers in diameter at their widest) branch out and contact the climbing surface.

A gecko is able to climb on glass by using physical bond interactions—specifically van der Waals intermolecular forces—between the spatulae and a surface to adhere reversibly, resulting in easy attachment and removal of the gecko’s toes from the surface. The van der Waals mechanism implied that it is the size and shape of the spatulae tips that affect adhesive performance, not specific surface chemistry. This suggested that there were design principles and physical models derived from nature that might enable scientists to fabricate an adhesive inspired by gecko toes.

Humans, of course, have much more weight to carry than a gecko. One of the initial challenges in developing a device to support human climbing was the issue of scaling: a typical Tokay gecko weighs 200 grams, while an average human male weighs 75 kilograms. To enable dynamic climbing like a gecko at this larger scale required that the engineers create climbing paddles capable of balancing sufficient adhesive forces in both the shear (parallel to the vertical surface) and normal (perpendicular to the vertical surface) directions. That feature is necessary for a climber to remain adhered on a surface without falling off while in the act of attaching and detaching the paddles with each movement.

The Draper Laboratory team was also challenged to create novel micro- and nanofabrication technologies to produce the high-aspect-ratio microstructures found in the gecko toe. In the process of achieving that capability, the Z-Man performers transformed the fundamental design and development of reversible adhesives for potential biomedical, industrial, and consumer applications.

The first human climbing demonstration occurred in February 2012 and tests of the technology are ongoing. [emphasis mine]

I’m guessing that glass is difficult to photograph because the image which accompanies the DARPA news release doesn’t highlight the achievement in quite the way one would expect,

During testing, an operator climbed 25 feet vertically on a glass surface using no climbing equipment other than a pair of hand-held, gecko-inspired paddles. The climber wore, but did not require, the use of a safety belay. Image: DARPA

During testing, an operator climbed 25 feet vertically on a glass surface using no climbing equipment other than a pair of hand-held, gecko-inspired paddles. The climber wore, but did not require, the use of a safety belay. Image: DARPA

I last wrote about Z-man in an April 3, 2012 posting highlighting some DARPA-funded work being done at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst while also mentioning work being done in other labs not associated (to my knowledge) with DARPA.

I was not successful in my attempts to find a video highlighting this ‘glass wall’ achievement but I did find this episode of Science Friction, where the host, Rusty Ward, does a very nice job of describing the technology (van der Waals forces, the nanostructures allowing spiders and geckos to climb all sorts of surfaces, etc.) along with some pop culture references (Spider-Man),

This runs for approximately 5 mins. 30 secs., a bit longer than usual for a video embedded here.

One last note, for anyone curious the laboratory referenced in the news release, you can find more here at the (Charles Stark) Draper Laboratory Wikipedia entry.

Ontario’s special science research, writing, and presentation programme (Online Research Co-op Pilot Program) for high schoolers

A group of teenagers in Thunder Bay , Ontario participating in a pilot programme where they were mentored online by Canadian government federal scientists were profiled in a May 9, 2104 news item published by The Chronicle Journal; the newspaper of the northwest (Ontario),

Three Churchill high school students have completed a bold journey in science.

The science co-op students were each teamed up with a federal scientist in a year-long pilot project that ended this week when the students presented their research paper to a panel of experts.

Shane Wong, 17, worked on nanotechnology, materials at the size of molecules and atoms. “I think I was watching an episode of Daily Planet actually, and they mentioned nanotechnology, and I thought that was really cool,’’ Wong recalled. “When they offered this program at the school, nanotechnology was one of them.”

Wesley Willick, 16, looked at a space-based automatic identification system. “It is basically a bunch of ships at sea . . . communicating with each other, (sharing) data such as speed and where they are heading and what they are carrying . . . relaying that information up to a satellite and back down to a mainland station which can organize the data and make sure none of the ships collide,” explained Willick.

“I originally signed up for military technology and I got paired with somebody who works at the Maritime Defence Institute in Halifax,’’ Willick said. “He gave me several different options . . . and thought this was the best to do because it had more papers written on it.”

Robin Little, 17, wrote on phage therapy, a bacteria used to attack specific bacteria and which can be genetically modified, he said. “This is going to be used as an alternative medication as opposed to antibiotics, as antibiotics are extremely dangerous and poisonous,” said Little. …

Simrun Chabal, an International Baccalaureate student, also participated in the science co-op, but was unavailable to do his presentation due to other commitments.

Churchill was one of six Ontario schools involved in the pilot project.

The full title for the project is this: Ontario On-Line Research Co-op for high school students. There’s this from the project homepage,

This course has been collaboratively developed by the Canadian Young Scientist Journal and the federal Science and Technology Cluster (Science.gc.ca).

The Online Research Co-op Pilot Program has been developed to help students transition from secondary school to postsecondary education. The program matches highly motivated high school students, in grades 11 and 12, with top researchers in the fields of science and technology. Students are offered opportunities to work on research projects, interact with like-minded peers, and gain early exposure to careers in science and technology. The online format of the course makes it accessible to students across Ontario.

The program has been piloted in four schools across the province:

Earl Haig Secondary School
École secondaire publique De la Salle
Sir Winston Churchill Collegiate & Vocational Institute
St. Martin Secondary School

Additional Ontario high schools can now apply to offer this opportunity for their students. Their letters of intent should be coordinated with the program liaison ([email protected]) and submitted to the Canadian Young Scientist Journal.

The pilot program will be the topic of a workshop at the Ontario Cooperative Education Association Spring Conference (April 27 – 29, 2014) and at the Ontario Association of Physics Teachers Conference (May 24, 2014).The best On-Line Research Co-op projects will be:

profiled in the Canadian Young Scientist Journal and distributed to every high school in Ontario;
presented at the Ontario Annual Science and Innovation conference to the attention of the national academic community;
showcased on Science.gc.ca together with a Young Scientist Blog allowing students to share their experience and ideas with each other and with the general public.

Step-by-step pilot project description:

1. Choosing students

A selection process takes place at the participating high schools to choose the students who will take part in the online co-op. Students develop their cover letters and a description of science projects they would like to pursue. The co-op liaison passes the names of the successful students along with their cover letters, research requests and alternatives to the Science.gc.ca team to engage scientists interested in mentoring.

2. Finding the mentors

The Science.gc.ca team matches projects with scientists who expressed interest in mentoring and helping to develop the next generation of scientists. If no exact match is found for a particular project, the Science.gc.ca team will approach potential mentors in a similar field of study. After reviewing materials from students, the scientists agree to mentor a particular student.

3. The interview

The liaison arranges a Skype or telephone “interview” between the student, the mentor and the local co-op teacher. During the interview, the mentor and student will discuss the project and the expectations while making any mutually acceptable modifications.

4. Setting up collaboration

The Science.gc.ca team creates a separate online SharePoint site for each student and a mentoring scientist. The collaboration space allows for an easy exchange of ideas, information, assigning research topics, and reviewing work submitted over the period of one semester. The information on the roles and responsibilities of the student and the mentor are integrated into the site. As this is a pilot project, participants, teachers and mentors also have access to a forum for sharing successes, tips, and lessons learned with other teams.

5. Using collaboration spaces

Based on the interview, the mentor adapts the project expectations and deliverables and uploads them to the SharePoint site. The mentor also provides a list of resources that the student can use as well as tasks to be accomplished. The student and the mentor regularly communicate online and the student posts timely progress updates and uploads results of completed tasks. The mentor approves the student’s weekly timesheets and completes the mid-course and final evaluation forms online.

6. Measuring ongoing progress

Each collaboration site includes tools supporting ongoing interactions and measurement of student’s progress. The mentor and the co-op teacher have an opportunity to be involved as little or as much as necessary based on the course progress indicators; the mentor can decide when the student needs assistance or guidance. The student and the mentor meet half way through the course via Skype or telephone to discuss progress and if necessary modify the expectations for the deliverables and the final report. By the end of the course the student submits results in a form of project report, case study or research topic review.

7. Celebrating results

The Online Research Co-op Pilot Program supports students’ transition from high school into postsecondary institutes with a focus on 21st century career development. We will celebrate the best projects in the following ways:

Featuring them in the Canadian Young Scientist Journal distributed to every high school in Ontario;
Presenting the projects at the Ontario Annual Science and Innovation conference to the attention of the national academic community;
Creating a showcase on Science.gc.ca together with a Young Scientist Blog allowing students to share their experience and ideas.

All of the participating mentors will be recognised in a special section of Science.gc.ca for their contribution to the development of the next generation of Canadian scientists and researchers.

There’s also a plea for mentors on the project homepage,

This program allows participating scientists to mentor and shape the next generation of Canadian scientists through direct on-line contact. During a 4 month semester, students are expected to work for about 90 hours. Mentoring scientists are expected to contribute about 10 hours of their time over the same period. Early exposure to research can have a large impact on the career direction of these students. Recently, through the Canadian Young Scientist Journal, high school students demonstrated their ability to invent New Bio-science technologies, Non-voice over IP communication and more. However, these students require mentors to guide their intellectual curiosity.

Mentors have the opportunity to review the cover letter of students before accepting them as mentees. During an initial online meeting, the student and the mentor will discuss expectations and guidelines for the project. There will be generic assignments available for students (e.g., Writing a Scientific Paper, Critiquing a Scientific Paper, Report on Scientific Literature, Scientific Literature Review and Analysis), but the specifics of the project will be mutually agreed upon by both the student and mentor. An online SharePoint site will be a means for the students and mentors to share ideas, documents, and information. The mentor may be involved as little or as much as necessary in the student’s project, based on the course progress indicators. Mentorship duties may be partially designated to a graduate student in the mentor’s lab; however, all projects should provide students with the opportunity to gain knowledge and skills in science and technology research.

I’m glad to see this project and hope it is quite successful and spreads across the country in all directions.

One final comment, I am not familiar with the Canadian Young Scientist Journal (CYSJ) and after a bit of online digging, I found this description in its Wikipedia entry (Note: links have been removed),

The Canadian Young Scientist Journal (fr. Revue Canadienne des Jeunes Scientifiques) is a non-profit peer-reviewed publication covering highlight student-driven research and innovative work. It was established in May 2008 by its current editor-in-chief, Alexandre Noukhovitch[1] and is published by NRC Research Press. [emphasis mine] It provides secondary school students with an opportunity to publish the results of their research.[2] The journal is based in Toronto and is published twice per year. It works in close association with Youth Science Canada.[3] The journal includes project reports, case studies, and science book reviews authored by high school students.[4] To benefit science education and to support classroom activities, the journal publishes expert reviews along with students’ papers.

The journal was published by the Canadian federal government’s National Research Press which exists now as a brand for Canadian Science Publishing (CSP), a not-for-profit publishing group formed after the government severed it from Canada’s National Research Council. Oddly, there’s no mention of any publisher, CSP or otherwise, in the About the Journal page or elsewhere on the journal’s website but the Ads and sponsorships page does mention CSP in the Motivator category.

It’s always interesting trying to trace the network of relationships between government and non-government agencies especially since the Canadian federal government has created a number of not-for-profit agencies.I’m not trying to suggest sinister but it does get confusing when the agencies don’t think to include histories and explanations.

In the interest of clarifying things, I was involved in a project (Science Borealis; a Canadian science blog aggregator/hub/community) which was, and I think continues to to be, supported by CSP.

Does more nano-enabled security = more nano-enabled surveillance?

A May 6, 2014 essay by Brandon Engel published on Nanotechnology Now poses an interesting question about the use of nanotechnology-enabled security and surveillance measures (Note: Links have been removed),

Security is of prime importance in an increasingly globalized society. It has a role to play in protecting citizens and states from myriad malevolent forces, such as organized crime or terrorist acts, and in responding, as well as preventing, both natural and man-made disasters. Research and development in this field often focuses on certain broad areas, including security of infrastructures and utilities; intelligence surveillance and border security; and stability and safety in cases of crisis. …

Nanotechnology is coming to play an ever greater title:role in these applications. Whether it’s used for detecting potentially harmful materials for homeland security, finding pathogens in water supply systems, or for early warning and detoxification of harmful airborne substances, its usefulness and efficiency are becoming more evident by the day.

He’s quite right about these applications. For example, I’ve just published (May 9, 2014) piece ‘Textiles laced with carbon nanotubes for clothing that protects against poison gas‘.

Engel goes on to describe a dark side to nanotechnology-enabled security,

On the other hand, more and more unsettling scenarios are fathomable with the advent of this new technology, such as covertly infiltrated devices, as small as tiny insects, being used to coordinate and execute a disarming attack on obsolete weapons systems, information apparatuses, or power grids.

Engel is also right about the potential surveillance issues. In a Dec. 18, 2013 posting I featured a special issue of SIGNAL Magazine (which covers the latest trends and techniques in topics that include C4ISR, information security, intelligence, electronics, homeland security, cyber technologies,  …) focusing on nanotechnology-enabled security and surveillance,

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.

For anyone who may think Engel is exaggerating when he mentions tiny insects being used for surveillance, there’s this May 8, 2014 post (Cyborg Beetles Detect Nerve Gas) by Dexter Johnson on his Nanoclast blog (Note: Dexter is an engineer who describes the technology in a somewhat detailed, technical fashion). I have a less technical description of some then current research in an Aug. 12, 2011 posting featuring some military experiments, for example, a surveillance camera disguised as a hummingbird (I have a brief video of a demonstration) and some research into how smartphones can be used for surveillance.

Engel comes to an interesting conclusion (Note: A link has been removed),

The point is this: whatever conveniences are seemingly afforded by these sort of technological advances, there is persistent ambiguity about the extent to which this technology actually protects or makes us more vulnerable. Striking the right balance between respecting privacy and security is an ever-elusive goal, and at such an early point in the development of nanotech, must be approached on a case by case basis. … [emphasis mine]

I don’t understand what Engel means when he says “case by case.” Are these individual applications that he feels are prone to misuse or specific usages of these applications? In any event, while I appreciate the concerns (I share many of them), I don’t think his proposed approach is practicable and that leads to another question, what can be done? Sadly, I have no answers but I am glad to see the question being asked in the ‘nanotechnology webspace’.

I did some searching for Bandon Engel online and found this January 17, 2014 guest post (about a Dean Koontz book) on The Belle’s Tales blog. He also has a blog of his own, Brandon Engel where he describes himself this way,

Musician, filmmaker, multimedia journalist, puppeteer, and professional blogger based in Chicago.

The man clearly has a wide range of interests and concerns.

As for the question posed in this post’s head, I don’t think there is a simple one-to-one equivalency where one more security procedure results in one more surveillance procedure. However, I do believe there is a relationship between the two and that sometimes increased security is an argument used to support increased surveillance procedures. While Engel doesn’t state that explicitly in his piece, I think it is implied.

One final thought, surveillance is not new and one of the more interesting examples of the ‘art’ is featured in a description of the Parisian constabulary of the 18th century written by Nina Kushner in ,

The Case of the Closely Watched Courtesans
The French police obsessively tracked the kept women of 18th-century Paris. Why? (Slate.com, April 15, 2014)

or

Republished as: French police obsessively tracked elite sex workers of 18th-century Paris — and well-to-do men who hired them (National Post, April 16, 2014)

Kushner starts her article by describing contemporary sex workers and a 2014 Urban Institute study and then draws parallels between now and 18th Century Parisian sex workers while detailing advances in surveillance reports,

… One of the very first police forces in the Western world emerged in 18th-century Paris, and one of its vice units asked many of the same questions as the Urban Institute authors: How much do sex workers earn? Why do they turn to sex work in the first place? What are their relationships with their employers?

The vice unit, which operated from 1747 to 1771, turned out thousands of hand-written pages detailing what these dames entretenues [kept women] did. …

… They gathered biographical and financial data on the men who hired kept women — princes, peers of the realm, army officers, financiers, and their sons, a veritable “who’s who” of high society, or le monde. Assembling all of this information required cultivating extensive spy networks. Making it intelligible required certain bureaucratic developments: These inspectors perfected the genre of the report and the information management system of the dossier. These forms of “police writing,” as one scholar has described them, had been emerging for a while. But they took a giant leap forward at midcentury, with the work of several Paris police inspectors, including Inspector Jean-Baptiste Meusnier, the officer in charge of this vice unit from its inception until 1759. Meusnier and his successor also had clear literary talent; the reports are extremely well written, replete with irony, clever turns of phrase, and even narrative tension — at times, they read like novels.

If you have the time, Kushner’s well written article offers fascinating insight.

Textiles laced with carbon nanotubes for clothing that protects against poison gas

The last time I featured carbon nanotube-infused clothing was in a Nov. 4, 2013 post featuring a $20,000+ bulletproof business suit. It now seems that carbon nanotubes in clothing might also be used to protect the wearer against poison gases (from a May 7, 2014 news item on Nanowerk; Note:  A link has been removed),

Nerve agents are among the world’s most feared chemical weapons, but scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have demonstrated a way to engineer carbon nanotubes to dismantle the molecules of a major class of these chemicals (“Functionalized, carbon nanotube material for the catalytic degradation of organophosphate nerve agents”). In principle, they say, the nanotubes could be woven into clothing that destroys the nerve agents on contact before they reach the skin.

A May 6, 2014 US NIST news release, which originated the news item, describes the research in more detail,

The team’s experiments show that [carbon] nanotubes—special molecules that resemble cylinders formed of chicken wire—can be combined with a copper-based catalyst able to break apart a key chemical bond in the class of nerve agents that includes Sarin. A small amount of catalyst can break this bond in a large number of molecules, potentially rendering a nerve agent far less harmful. Because nanotubes further enhance the breakdown capability of the catalyst and can be woven into fabric easily, the NIST team members say the findings could help protect military personnel involved in cleanup operations.

Sarin—used in a 1995 Tokyo subway attack—is one of several deadly nerve agents of a group called organophosphates. Many are classified as weapons of mass destruction. While organophosphates are harmful if inhaled, they also are dangerous if absorbed through the skin, and can be even be re-released from clothing if not thoroughly decontaminated.

To protect themselves during research, the team did not work with actual nerve agents, but instead used a “mimic molecule” that contains a chemical bond identical to the one found in organophosphates. Breaking this bond splits the molecule into pieces that are far less dangerous.

The team developed a way to attach the catalyst molecule to the nanotubes and then tested the effectiveness of the tube-catalyst complex to break the bonds. To perform the test, the complex was deposited onto a small sheet of paper and put into a solution containing the mimic molecule. For comparison, the catalyst without nanotubes was tested simultaneously in a different solution. Then it was a simple matter of stirring and watching chemistry in action.

“The solution was initially transparent, almost like water,” says the team’s John Heddleston, “but as soon as we added the paper, the solution started to turn yellow as the breakdown product accumulated. Measuring this color change over time told us the amount and rate of catalysis. We began to see a noticeable difference within an hour, and the longer we left it, the more yellow it became.” The catalyst-nanotube complex far outperformed the catalyst alone.

Principal investigator Angela Hight Walker says that several questions will need to be addressed before catalytic nanotubes start showing up in clothing, such as whether it is better to add the catalyst to the nanotubes before or after they are woven into the fabric.

“We’d also like to find ways to make the catalytic reaction go faster, which is always better,” Hight Walker says. “But our research group has been focusing on the fundamental science of nanoparticles for years, so we are in a good position to answer these questions.”

It’s not clear to me if this technique of combining carbon nanotubes with copper for protection against poison gas will affect, adversely or otherwise, the bulletproofing properties associated with carbon nanotubes. In any event, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper from the NIST researchers,

Functionalized, carbon nanotube material for the catalytic degradation of organophosphate nerve agents by Mark M. Bailey, John M. Heddleston, Jeffrey Davis, Jessica L. Staymates, & Angela R. Hight Walker.  Nano Research March 2014, Volume 7, Issue 3, pp 390-398

This paper is behind a paywall.

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!