Category Archives: business

Cyborg bacteria to reduce carbon dioxide

This video is a bit technical but then it is about work being presented to chemists at the American Chemical Society’s (ACS) at the 254th National Meeting & Exposition Aug. 20 -24, 2017,

For a more plain language explanation, there’s an August 22, 2017 ACS news release (also on EurekAlert),

Photosynthesis provides energy for the vast majority of life on Earth. But chlorophyll, the green pigment that plants use to harvest sunlight, is relatively inefficient. To enable humans to capture more of the sun’s energy than natural photosynthesis can, scientists have taught bacteria to cover themselves in tiny, highly efficient solar panels to produce useful compounds.

“Rather than rely on inefficient chlorophyll to harvest sunlight, I’ve taught bacteria how to grow and cover their bodies with tiny semiconductor nanocrystals,” says Kelsey K. Sakimoto, Ph.D., who carried out the research in the lab of Peidong Yang, Ph.D. “These nanocrystals are much more efficient than chlorophyll and can be grown at a fraction of the cost of manufactured solar panels.”

Humans increasingly are looking to find alternatives to fossil fuels as sources of energy and feedstocks for chemical production. Many scientists have worked to create artificial photosynthetic systems to generate renewable energy and simple organic chemicals using sunlight. Progress has been made, but the systems are not efficient enough for commercial production of fuels and feedstocks.

Research in Yang’s lab at the University of California, Berkeley, where Sakimoto earned his Ph.D., focuses on harnessing inorganic semiconductors that can capture sunlight to organisms such as bacteria that can then use the energy to produce useful chemicals from carbon dioxide and water. “The thrust of research in my lab is to essentially ‘supercharge’ nonphotosynthetic bacteria by providing them energy in the form of electrons from inorganic semiconductors, like cadmium sulfide, that are efficient light absorbers,” Yang says. “We are now looking for more benign light absorbers than cadmium sulfide to provide bacteria with energy from light.”

Sakimoto worked with a naturally occurring, nonphotosynthetic bacterium, Moorella thermoacetica, which, as part of its normal respiration, produces acetic acid from carbon dioxide (CO2). Acetic acid is a versatile chemical that can be readily upgraded to a number of fuels, polymers, pharmaceuticals and commodity chemicals through complementary, genetically engineered bacteria.

When Sakimoto fed cadmium and the amino acid cysteine, which contains a sulfur atom, to the bacteria, they synthesized cadmium sulfide (CdS) nanoparticles, which function as solar panels on their surfaces. The hybrid organism, M. thermoacetica-CdS, produces acetic acid from CO2, water and light. “Once covered with these tiny solar panels, the bacteria can synthesize food, fuels and plastics, all using solar energy,” Sakimoto says. “These bacteria outperform natural photosynthesis.”

The bacteria operate at an efficiency of more than 80 percent, and the process is self-replicating and self-regenerating, making this a zero-waste technology. “Synthetic biology and the ability to expand the product scope of CO2 reduction will be crucial to poising this technology as a replacement, or one of many replacements, for the petrochemical industry,” Sakimoto says.

So, do the inorganic-biological hybrids have commercial potential? “I sure hope so!” he says. “Many current systems in artificial photosynthesis require solid electrodes, which is a huge cost. Our algal biofuels are much more attractive, as the whole CO2-to-chemical apparatus is self-contained and only requires a big vat out in the sun.” But he points out that the system still requires some tweaking to tune both the semiconductor and the bacteria. He also suggests that it is possible that the hybrid bacteria he created may have some naturally occurring analog. “A future direction, if this phenomenon exists in nature, would be to bioprospect for these organisms and put them to use,” he says.

For more insight into the work, check out Dexter Johnson’s Aug. 22, 2017 posting on his Nanoclast blog (on the IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] website),

“It’s actually a natural, overlooked feature of their biology,” explains Sakimoto in an e-mail interview with IEEE Spectrum. “This bacterium has a detoxification pathway, meaning if it encounters a toxic metal, like cadmium, it will try to precipitate it out, thereby detoxifying it. So when we introduce cadmium ions into the growth medium in which M. thermoacetica is hanging out, it will convert the amino acid cysteine into sulfide, which precipitates out cadmium as cadmium sulfide. The crystals then assemble and stick onto the bacterium through normal electrostatic interactions.”

I’ve just excerpted one bit, there’s more in Dexter’s posting.

Ora Sound, a Montréal-based startup, and its ‘graphene’ headphones

For all the excitement about graphene there aren’t that many products as Glenn Zorpette notes in a June 20, 2017 posting about Ora Sound and its headphones on the Nanoclast blog (on the IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] website; Note: Links have been removed),

Graphene has long been touted as a miracle material that would deliver everything from tiny, ultralow-power transistors to the vastly long and ultrastrong cable [PDF] needed for a space elevator. And yet, 13 years of graphene development, and R&D expenditures well in the tens of billions of dollars have so far yielded just a handful of niche products. The most notable by far is a line of tennis racquets in which relatively small amounts of graphene are used to stiffen parts of the frame.

Ora Sound, a Montreal-based [Québec, Canada] startup, hopes to change all that. On 20 June [2017], it unveiled a Kickstarter campaign for a new audiophile-grade headphone that uses cones, also known as membranes, made of a form of graphene. “To the best of our knowledge, we are the first company to find a significant, commercially viable application for graphene,” says Ora cofounder Ari Pinkas, noting that the cones in the headphones are 95 percent graphene.

Kickstarter

It should be noted that participating in a Kickstarter campaign is an investment/gamble. I am not endorsing Ora Sound or its products. That said, this does look interesting (from the ORA: The World’s First Graphene Headphones Kickstarter campaign webpage),

ORA GQ Headphones uses nanotechnology to deliver the most groundbreaking audio listening experience. Scientists have long promised that one day Graphene will find its way into many facets of our lives including displays, electronic circuits and sensors. ORA’s Graphene technology makes it one of the first companies to have created a commercially viable application for this Nobel-prize winning material, a major scientific achievement.

The GQ Headphones come equipped with ORA’s patented GrapheneQ™ membranes, providing unparalleled fidelity. The headphones also offer all the features you would expect from a high-end audio product: wired/wireless operation, a gesture control track-pad, a digital MEMS microphone, breathable lambskin leather and an ear-shaped design optimized for sound quality and isolated comfort.

They have produced a slick video to promote their campaign,

At the time of publishing this post, the campaign will run for another eight days and has raised $650,949 CAD. This is more than $500,000 dollars over the company’s original goal of $135,000. I’m sure they’re ecstatic but this success can be a mixed blessing. They have many more people expecting a set of headphones than they anticipated and that can mean production issues.

Further, there appears to be only one member of the team with business experience and his (Ari Pinkas) experience includes marketing strategy for a few years and then founding an online marketplace for teachers. I would imagine Pinkas will be experiencing a very steep learning curve. Hopefully, Helge Seetzen, a member of the company’s advisory board will be able to offer assistance. According to Seetzen’s Wikipedia entry, he is a “… German technologist and businessman known for imaging & multimedia research and commercialization,” as well as, having a Canadian educational background and business experience. The rest of the team and advisory board appear to be academics.

The technology

A March 14, 2017 article by Andy Riga for the Montréal Gazette gives a general description of the technology,

A Montreal startup is counting on technology sparked by a casual conversation between two brothers pursuing PhDs at McGill University.

They were chatting about their disparate research areas — one, in engineering, was working on using graphene, a form of carbon, in batteries; the other, in music, was looking at the impact of electronics on the perception of audio quality.

At first glance, the invention that ensued sounds humdrum.

It’s a replacement for an item you use every day. It’s paper thin, you probably don’t realize it’s there and its design has not changed much in more than a century. Called a membrane or diaphragm, it’s the part of a loudspeaker that vibrates to create the sound from the headphones over your ears, the wireless speaker on your desk, the cellphone in your hand.

Membranes are normally made of paper, Mylar or aluminum.

Ora’s innovation uses graphene, a remarkable material whose discovery garnered two scientists the 2010 Nobel Prize in physics but which has yet to fulfill its promise.

“Because it’s so stiff, our membrane gets better sound quality,” said Robert-Eric Gaskell, who obtained his PhD in sound recording in 2015. “It can produce more sound with less distortion, and the sound that you hear is more true to the original sound intended by the artist.

“And because it’s so light, we get better efficiency — the lighter it is, the less energy it takes.”

In January, the company demonstrated its membrane in headphones at the Consumer Electronics Show, a big trade convention in Las Vegas.

Six cellphone manufacturers expressed interest in Ora’s technology, some of which are now trying prototypes, said Ari Pinkas, in charge of product marketing at Ora. “We’re talking about big cellphone manufacturers — big, recognizable names,” he said.

Technology companies are intrigued by the idea of using Ora’s technology to make smaller speakers so they can squeeze other things, such as bigger batteries, into the limited space in electronic devices, Pinkas said. Others might want to use Ora’s membrane to allow their devices to play music louder, he added.

Makers of regular speakers, hearing aids and virtual-reality headsets have also expressed interest, Pinkas said.

Ora is still working on headphones.

Riga’s article offers a good overview for people who are not familiar with graphene.

Zorpette’s June 20, 2017 posting (on Nanoclast) offers a few more technical details (Note: Links have been removed),

During an interview and demonstration in the IEEE Spectrum offices, Pinkas and Robert-Eric Gaskell, another of the company’s cofounders, explained graphene’s allure to audiophiles. “Graphene has the ideal properties for a membrane,” Gaskell says. “It’s incredibly stiff, very lightweight—a rare combination—and it’s well damped,” which means it tends to quell spurious vibrations. By those metrics, graphene soundly beats all the usual choices: mylar, paper, aluminum, or even beryllium, Gaskell adds.

The problem is making it in sheets large enough to fashion into cones. So-called “pristine” graphene exists as flakes, [emphasis mine] perhaps 10 micrometers across, and a single atom thick. To make larger, strong sheets of graphene, researchers attach oxygen atoms to the flakes, and then other elements to the oxygen atoms to cross-link the flakes and hold them together strongly in what materials scientists call a laminate structure. The intellectual property behind Ora’s advance came from figuring out how to make these structures suitably thick and in the proper shape to function as speaker cones, Gaskell says. In short, he explains, the breakthrough was, “being able to manufacture” in large numbers, “and in any geometery we want.”

Much of the R&D work that led to Ora’s process was done at nearby McGill University, by professor Thomas Szkopek of the Electrical and Computer Engineering department. Szkopek worked with Peter Gaskell, Robert-Eric’s younger brother. Ora is also making use of patents that arose from work done on graphene by the Nguyen Group at Northwestern University, in Evanston, Ill.

Robert-Eric Gaskell and Pinkas arrived at Spectrum with a preproduction model of their headphones, as well as some other headphones for the sake of comparison. The Ora prototype is clearly superior to the comparison models, but that’s not much of a surprise. …

… In the 20 minutes or so I had to audition Ora’s preproduction model, I listened to an assortment of classical and jazz standards and I came away impressed. The sound is precise, with fine details sharply rendered. To my surprise, I was reminded of planar-magnetic type headphones that are now surging in popularity in the upper reaches of the audiophile headphone market. Bass is smooth and tight. Overall, the unit holds up quite well against closed-back models in the $400 to $500 range I’ve listened to from Grado, Bowers & Wilkins, and Audeze.

Ora’s Kickstarter campaign page (Graphene vs GrapheneQ subsection) offers some information about their unique graphene composite,

A TECHNICAL INTRODUCTION TO GRAPHENE

Graphene is a new material, first isolated only 13 years ago. Formed from a single layer of carbon atoms, Graphene is a hexagonal crystal lattice in a perfect honeycomb structure. This fundamental geometry makes Graphene ridiculously strong and lightweight. In its pure form, Graphene is a single atomic layer of carbon. It can be very expensive and difficult to produce in sizes any bigger than small flakes. These challenges have prevented pristine Graphene from being integrated into consumer technologies.

THE GRAPHENEQ™ SOLUTION

At ORA, we’ve spent the last few years creating GrapheneQ, our own, proprietary Graphene-based nanocomposite formulation. We’ve specifically designed and optimized it for use in acoustic transducers. GrapheneQ is a composite material which is over 95% Graphene by weight. It is formed by depositing flakes of Graphene into thousands of layers that are bonded together with proprietary cross-linking agents. Rather than trying to form one, continuous layer of Graphene, GrapheneQ stacks flakes of Graphene together into a laminate material that preserves the benefits of Graphene while allowing the material to be formed into loudspeaker cones.

Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) Comparison
Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) Comparison

If you’re interested in more technical information on sound, acoustics, soundspeakers, and Ora’s graphene-based headphones, it’s all there on Ora’s Kickstarter campaign page.

The Québec nanotechnology scene in context and graphite flakes for graphene

There are two Canadian provinces that are heavily invested in nanotechnology research and commercialization efforts. The province of Québec has poured money into their nanotechnology efforts, while the province of Alberta has also invested heavily in nanotechnology, it has also managed to snare additional federal funds to host Canada’s National Institute of Nanotechnology (NINT). (This appears to be a current NINT website or you can try this one on the National Research Council website). I’d rank Ontario as being a third centre with the other provinces being considerably less invested. As for the North, I’ve not come across any nanotechnology research from that region. Finally, as I stumble more material about nanotechnology in Québec than I do for any other province, that’s the reason I rate Québec as the most successful in its efforts.

Regarding graphene, Canada seems to have an advantage. We have great graphite flakes for making graphene. With mines in at least two provinces, Ontario and Québec, we have a ready source of supply. In my first posting (July 25, 2011) about graphite mines here, I had this,

Who knew large flakes could be this exciting? From the July 25, 2011 news item on Nanowerk,

Northern Graphite Corporation has announced that graphene has been successfully made on a test basis using large flake graphite from the Company’s Bissett Creek project in Northern Ontario. Northern’s standard 95%C, large flake graphite was evaluated as a source material for making graphene by an eminent professor in the field at the Chinese Academy of Sciences who is doing research making graphene sheets larger than 30cm2 in size using the graphene oxide methodology. The tests indicated that graphene made from Northern’s jumbo flake is superior to Chinese powder and large flake graphite in terms of size, higher electrical conductivity, lower resistance and greater transparency.

Approximately 70% of production from the Bissett Creek property will be large flake (+80 mesh) and almost all of this will in fact be +48 mesh jumbo flake which is expected to attract premium pricing and be a better source material for the potential manufacture of graphene. The very high percentage of large flakes makes Bissett Creek unique compared to most graphite deposits worldwide which produce a blend of large, medium and small flakes, as well as a large percentage of low value -150 mesh flake and amorphous powder which are not suitable for graphene, Li ion batteries or other high end, high growth applications.

Since then I’ve stumbled across more information about Québec’s mines than Ontario’s  as can be seen:

There are some other mentions of graphite mines in other postings but they are tangential to what’s being featured:

  • (my Oct. 26, 2015 posting about St. Jean Carbon and its superconducting graphene and
  • my Feb. 20, 2015 posting about Nanoxplore and graphene production in Québec; and
  • this Feb. 23, 2015 posting about Grafoid and its sister company, Focus Graphite which gets its graphite flakes from a deposit in the northeastern part of Québec).

 

After reviewing these posts, I’ve begun to wonder where Ora’s graphite flakes come from? In any event, I wish the folks at Ora and their Kickstarter funders the best of luck.

Artificial intelligence (AI) company (in Montréal, Canada) attracts $135M in funding from Microsoft, Intel, Nvidia and others

It seems there’s a push on to establish Canada as a centre for artificial intelligence research and, if the federal and provincial governments have their way, for commercialization of said research. As always, there seems to be a bit of competition between Toronto (Ontario) and Montréal (Québec) as to which will be the dominant hub for the Canadian effort if one is to take Braga’s word for the situation.

In any event, Toronto seemed to have a mild advantage over Montréal initially with the 2017 Canadian federal government  budget announcement that the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR), based in Toronto, would launch a Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy and with an announcement from the University of Toronto shortly after (from my March 31, 2017 posting),

On the heels of the March 22, 2017 federal budget announcement of $125M for a Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy, the University of Toronto (U of T) has announced the inception of the Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence in a March 28, 2017 news release by Jennifer Robinson (Note: Links have been removed),

A team of globally renowned researchers at the University of Toronto is driving the planning of a new institute staking Toronto’s and Canada’s claim as the global leader in AI.

Geoffrey Hinton, a University Professor Emeritus in computer science at U of T and vice-president engineering fellow at Google, will serve as the chief scientific adviser of the newly created Vector Institute based in downtown Toronto.

“The University of Toronto has long been considered a global leader in artificial intelligence research,” said U of T President Meric Gertler. “It’s wonderful to see that expertise act as an anchor to bring together researchers, government and private sector actors through the Vector Institute, enabling them to aim even higher in leading advancements in this fast-growing, critical field.”

As part of the Government of Canada’s Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy, Vector will share $125 million in federal funding with fellow institutes in Montreal and Edmonton. All three will conduct research and secure talent to cement Canada’s position as a world leader in AI.

However, Montréal and the province of Québec are no slouches when it comes to supporting to technology. From a June 14, 2017 article by Matthew Braga for CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) news online (Note: Links have been removed),

One of the most promising new hubs for artificial intelligence research in Canada is going international, thanks to a $135 million investment with contributions from some of the biggest names in tech.

The company, Montreal-based Element AI, was founded last October [2016] to help companies that might not have much experience in artificial intelligence start using the technology to change the way they do business.

It’s equal parts general research lab and startup incubator, with employees working to develop new and improved techniques in artificial intelligence that might not be fully realized for years, while also commercializing products and services that can be sold to clients today.

It was co-founded by Yoshua Bengio — one of the pioneers of a type of AI research called machine learning — along with entrepreneurs Jean-François Gagné and Nicolas Chapados, and the Canadian venture capital fund Real Ventures.

In an interview, Bengio and Gagné said the money from the company’s funding round will be used to hire 250 new employees by next January. A hundred will be based in Montreal, but an additional 100 employees will be hired for a new office in Toronto, and the remaining 50 for an Element AI office in Asia — its first international outpost.

They will join more than 100 employees who work for Element AI today, having left jobs at Amazon, Uber and Google, among others, to work at the company’s headquarters in Montreal.

The expansion is a big vote of confidence in Element AI’s strategy from some of the world’s biggest technology companies. Microsoft, Intel and Nvidia all contributed to the round, and each is a key player in AI research and development.

The company has some not unexpected plans and partners (from the Braga, article, Note: A link has been removed),

The Series A round was led by Data Collective, a Silicon Valley-based venture capital firm, and included participation by Fidelity Investments Canada, National Bank of Canada, and Real Ventures.

What will it help the company do? Scale, its founders say.

“We’re looking at domain experts, artificial intelligence experts,” Gagné said. “We already have quite a few, but we’re looking at people that are at the top of their game in their domains.

“And at this point, it’s no longer just pure artificial intelligence, but people who understand, extremely well, robotics, industrial manufacturing, cybersecurity, and financial services in general, which are all the areas we’re going after.”

Gagné says that Element AI has already delivered 10 projects to clients in those areas, and have many more in development. In one case, Element AI has been helping a Japanese semiconductor company better analyze the data collected by the assembly robots on its factory floor, in a bid to reduce manufacturing errors and improve the quality of the company’s products.

There’s more to investment in Québec’s AI sector than Element AI (from the Braga article; Note: Links have been removed),

Element AI isn’t the only organization in Canada that investors are interested in.

In September, the Canadian government announced $213 million in funding for a handful of Montreal universities, while both Google and Microsoft announced expansions of their Montreal AI research groups in recent months alongside investments in local initiatives. The province of Quebec has pledged $100 million for AI initiatives by 2022.

Braga goes on to note some other initiatives but at that point the article’s focus is exclusively Toronto.

For more insight into the AI situation in Québec, there’s Dan Delmar’s May 23, 2017 article for the Montreal Express (Note: Links have been removed),

Advocating for massive government spending with little restraint admittedly deviates from the tenor of these columns, but the AI business is unlike any other before it. [emphasis misn] Having leaders acting as fervent advocates for the industry is crucial; resisting the coming technological tide is, as the Borg would say, futile.

The roughly 250 AI researchers who call Montreal home are not simply part of a niche industry. Quebec’s francophone character and Montreal’s multilingual citizenry are certainly factors favouring the development of language technology, but there’s ample opportunity for more ambitious endeavours with broader applications.

AI isn’t simply a technological breakthrough; it is the technological revolution. [emphasis mine] In the coming decades, modern computing will transform all industries, eliminating human inefficiencies and maximizing opportunities for innovation and growth — regardless of the ethical dilemmas that will inevitably arise.

“By 2020, we’ll have computers that are powerful enough to simulate the human brain,” said (in 2009) futurist Ray Kurzweil, author of The Singularity Is Near, a seminal 2006 book that has inspired a generation of AI technologists. Kurzweil’s projections are not science fiction but perhaps conservative, as some forms of AI already effectively replace many human cognitive functions. “By 2045, we’ll have expanded the intelligence of our human-machine civilization a billion-fold. That will be the singularity.”

The singularity concept, borrowed from physicists describing event horizons bordering matter-swallowing black holes in the cosmos, is the point of no return where human and machine intelligence will have completed their convergence. That’s when the machines “take over,” so to speak, and accelerate the development of civilization beyond traditional human understanding and capability.

The claims I’ve highlighted in Delmar’s article have been made before for other technologies, “xxx is like no other business before’ and “it is a technological revolution.”  Also if you keep scrolling down to the bottom of the article, you’ll find Delmar is a ‘public relations consultant’ which, if you look at his LinkedIn profile, you’ll find means he’s a managing partner in a PR firm known as Provocateur.

Bertrand Marotte’s May 20, 2017 article for the Montreal Gazette offers less hyperbole along with additional detail about the Montréal scene (Note: Links have been removed),

It might seem like an ambitious goal, but key players in Montreal’s rapidly growing artificial-intelligence sector are intent on transforming the city into a Silicon Valley of AI.

Certainly, the flurry of activity these days indicates that AI in the city is on a roll. Impressive amounts of cash have been flowing into academia, public-private partnerships, research labs and startups active in AI in the Montreal area.

…, researchers at Microsoft Corp. have successfully developed a computing system able to decipher conversational speech as accurately as humans do. The technology makes the same, or fewer, errors than professional transcribers and could be a huge boon to major users of transcription services like law firms and the courts.

Setting the goal of attaining the critical mass of a Silicon Valley is “a nice point of reference,” said tech entrepreneur Jean-François Gagné, co-founder and chief executive officer of Element AI, an artificial intelligence startup factory launched last year.

The idea is to create a “fluid, dynamic ecosystem” in Montreal where AI research, startup, investment and commercialization activities all mesh productively together, said Gagné, who founded Element with researcher Nicolas Chapados and Université de Montréal deep learning pioneer Yoshua Bengio.

“Artificial intelligence is seen now as a strategic asset to governments and to corporations. The fight for resources is global,” he said.

The rise of Montreal — and rival Toronto — as AI hubs owes a lot to provincial and federal government funding.

Ottawa promised $213 million last September to fund AI and big data research at four Montreal post-secondary institutions. Quebec has earmarked $100 million over the next five years for the development of an AI “super-cluster” in the Montreal region.

The provincial government also created a 12-member blue-chip committee to develop a strategic plan to make Quebec an AI hub, co-chaired by Claridge Investments Ltd. CEO Pierre Boivin and Université de Montréal rector Guy Breton.

But private-sector money has also been flowing in, particularly from some of the established tech giants competing in an intense AI race for innovative breakthroughs and the best brains in the business.

Montreal’s rich talent pool is a major reason Waterloo, Ont.-based language-recognition startup Maluuba decided to open a research lab in the city, said the company’s vice-president of product development, Mohamed Musbah.

“It’s been incredible so far. The work being done in this space is putting Montreal on a pedestal around the world,” he said.

Microsoft struck a deal this year to acquire Maluuba, which is working to crack one of the holy grails of deep learning: teaching machines to read like the human brain does. Among the company’s software developments are voice assistants for smartphones.

Maluuba has also partnered with an undisclosed auto manufacturer to develop speech recognition applications for vehicles. Voice recognition applied to cars can include such things as asking for a weather report or making remote requests for the vehicle to unlock itself.

Marotte’s Twitter profile describes him as a freelance writer, editor, and translator.

The security of the Internet of Nano-Things with NanoMalaysia’s CEO Dr Rezal Khairi Ahmad

I’ve not come across the Internet of Nano-Things before and I’m always glad to be introduced to something new. In this case, I’m doubly happy as I get to catch up (a little) with the Malaysian nano scene. From an April 19, 2017 article by Avanti Kumar for mis.asia.com (Note: Links have been removed),

After being certified in 2011 as a nanocentre, national applied research agency MIMOS continued to make regular moves to boost Malaysia’s nanotechnology ambitions. This included helping to develop the national graphene action plan (NGAP 2020).

Much of the task of driving and commercialising the NGAP ecosystem is in the hands of NanoMalaysia, which was incorporated in 2011 as a company limited by guarantee (CLG) under Malaysia’s Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (MOSTI) to act as a business entity.

During another event in March 2016 where I saw that 360 new products were to be commercialised under NGAP, NanoMalaysia’s chief executive officer Dr. Rezal Khairi Ahmad said that benefits would include a US$5 billion impact on GNI (gross net income) and 9,000 related new jobs by the year 2020.

In his capacity as a keynote speaker at this year’s Computerworld Security Summit in Kuala Lumpur (20 April 2017), Dr Rezal agreed to a security-themed interview on this relatively new industry sector.  This is also part of a series of special security features.

To start, I asked Dr Rezal for a brief run-through of his role.

[RKA]  I’m the founding Chief Executive Officer and also Board Member of NanoMalaysia, Nano Commerce Sdn. Bhd, representing NanoMalaysia’s business interests, the Chairman of NanoVerify Sdn. Bhd, a nanotechnology certification entity and a Director of Nanovation Ventures Sdn. Bhd., an investment arm of NanoMalaysia.

Prior to this, I served as Acting Under-Secretary of National Nanotechnology Directorate, Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation on the policy aspect of nanotechnology and vice president of [national investment body] Khazanah Nasional touching on human capital and investment research.

NanoMalaysia’s primary role in the development of Malaysia’s National Graphene Action Plan 2020 together with Agensi Inovasi Malaysia and PEMANDU [Performance Management & Delivery Unit attached to Prime Minister’s Office] is a major landmark in our journey to ensure Malaysia stays competitive in the global innovation landscape particularly in nanotechnology, which cuts across all industries including ICT [information and communications technologies].

Can you talk about graphene and its significance to local industry?

Graphene is touted as one of the game-changing advanced materials made of one atom-thick carbon and acknowledged by World Economic Forum [WEF] as no. 4 emerging technology in 2016.

Beyond being a fancy nano material, graphene plays a central role in the development of endogenous hardware aspects of Malaysia’s Internet of Things aspirations or the now evolved Internet of Nano-Things (IoNT). Some of these are:
-·Super small, lightweight and hyper-sensitive low-cost Graphene-based sensors and Radio Frequency ID (RFID)
– Higher speed, Low loss and power consumption graphene based optical transmitter and receiver for 5G systems
– Making IoNT a low-cost and practical industrial and domestic solutions in Malaysia.

Let’s move to the security aspects of nanotechnology: what’s your take on IoNT?

In the context of IoNT, which WEF acknowledged to be the top emerging technology in 2016, the current work-in-progress,  ‘ubiquitous’ deployment of sensors in Malaysia and worldwide, I certainly see increasing data security risks at the sensor, transmission, collection, processing and even analytics levels.

The initial industry approaches to IoNT data security will probably be polarised between cascaded and centralised system approaches.

I think some hacking attacks will obviously focus on data theft. I therefore foresee a trend favouring cascaded security – with both hardware, software and more advanced data encryption technologies in place.

What security steps do you currently advise?

The priority is to tackle potential data theft at every stage of IoNT systems.  The best-available preventive measures should include some versions of cascaded and embedded security in the form of hardware tags and advanced encryption.

To end, what’s your main message for business and IT leaders?

The digital era has removed the clear line that once separated State and Business as well as People. Everything and everyone is more interconnected. We are now an ecosystem both by chance and design. Cyber-attacks can be made to afflict either one and be used to hold any one at ransom thus creating a local or even global systemic chain reaction effect.

The connected world presents endless commercial, social and environmental development opportunities…and threats. The development and deployment of emerging cyber-related technologies, in particular IoNT – which promises a market size of US$9.69 billion by 2020 – should be done responsibly in the form of infused data security technologies to ensure prolific market acceptance and profitable returns.

For our part, NanoMalaysia is working with various parties locally and abroad push Malaysia’s strategic industry sectors to be relevant to the Fourth Industrial Revolution supported by cyber-physical systems manifesting into full automation, robots, artificial intelligence, de-centralised power generation, energy storage, water and food supplies, remote assets and logistics management and custom manufacturing requiring secured data sensing, traffic and analytics systems in place.

If you have the time, I advise reading the article in its entirety.

Nontoxic, biodegradable orthopedic implant for damaged bones

Unlike most of the science items on phys.org this April 14, 2017 news item is not a publication announcement,

Purdue University researchers are developing a nontoxic, biodegradable orthopedic implant that could be safely absorbed by the body after providing adequate support to damaged bones.

The development of the technology originated in the lab of Lia Stanciu, a professor of materials engineering at Purdue in 2009. The technology could eliminate the need for a second surgery to remove conventional hardware.

“Currently, most implants use stainless steel and titanium alloys for strength. This can cause long-term change in the mechanics of the specific region and eventual long-term deterioration,” Stanciu said. “Additionally medical operations that require an orthopedic implant must be followed-up with a second surgery to remove the implant or the accompanying hardware of the implant resulting in higher medical costs and an increased risk of complications.”

An April 13, 2017 Purdue University news release, which originated the news item, provides a bit more detail and a hint as to what may have occasioned the news release,

Co-inventors of the technology are Stanciu; Eric Nauman, a professor in Purdue’s College of Engineering and director of the College of Engineering Honors Programs; Michael J Heiden, a PhD candidate; and Mahdi Dehestani, a graduate research assistant, both in Purdue’s School of Materials Engineering.

Nauman said the resorbable metal technology provides superior properties compared to conventional metals.

“The implant has high porosity, which is empty space in the material, in which optimal vascular invasion can occur. This provides a way for cells to optimally absorb the material,” he said. “Our technology is able to provide short-term fixation but eliminate the need for long-term hardware such as titanium or stainless steel that may require second surgeries to be retrieved,”

The orthopedic implant also uses manganese, which provides a better degradation rate, Stanciu added.

“Current resorbable metals are made with magnesium; however, this provides many adverse side effects to the body and degrades very quickly,” she said. “We decided to use manganese instead of magnesium. Through studies we found that we can control the degradation rates from 22 millimeters per year to 1.2 millimeters per year pretty consistently. We also saw that manganese has a very good corrosion rate over time.”

Nauman said the technology still exhibits the usual benefits associated with using biomaterials.

“With this technology we are able to tailor the surfaces such as de-alloying the surface to provide a better material for cells to grab on to and grow,” he said. “We were also able to show that we could control cell attachment proliferation, an increase of the number of cells. Our technology still has all these usual benefits in addition to controlling the degradation rates of the metals.”

The Purdue Research Foundation’s Office of Technology Commercialization has patented the technology and it is available for license. For information call 765-588-3470 or email innovation@prf.org.

I believe they’re looking for a commercial partner of some kind.

China and the world’s largest multifunctional research platform for nanotechnology

Weirdly, I got this news about China in a March 28 (?), 2017 news item from the Nigeria News Agency,

Chinese scientists are building the world’s largest multifunctional research platform for nano-science and nano-technology that could help develop more powerful computers and more intelligent robots.

The Vacuum Interconnected Nano-X Research Facility in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, integrates the state-of-art capabilities of material growth, device fabrication and testing in one ultra-high vacuum environment, said Ding Sunan, deputy director of the project.

“We are exploring a new technology route of nano-scale devices production on the platform, which simulates the ultra-high vacuum environment of space,” said Ding, a researcher at the Suzhou Institute of Nano-Tech and Nano-Bionics under the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Nano-X is designed as a complete system for materials growth, device fabrication and testing. All samples can be transferred accurately, quickly and smoothly among all tools in an ultra-high vacuum environment.

The facility can prevent surface contamination from the air, keeping a material’s intrinsic properties unchanged and realizing quantum manipulation and control, said Ding.

Experts say it will help make breakthroughs in common and critical problems in materials science and device technology, and develop new manufacturing technologies of nano-materials and core devices in the fields of energy and information.

Nano-X is expected to be incorporated into China’s national research infrastructure system, and become a world-class open platform for research and development in nano-science and nano-technology, providing advanced technical support for the national strategy of high technologies.

I’ve come across ‘Suzhou’ and nanotechnology in China before but first, here are a few more details about Nano-X in a March 29, 2017 news item by PTI on the bgr.in (India) website,

Nano-X has received initial funding of 320 million Yuan (about $46.5 million) and will eventually have a budget of 1.5 billion Yuan, state-run Xinhua news agency reported. Construction of the first stage began in 2014 and is expected to be completed in 2018. It comprises 100-metre-long ultra-high vacuum pipelines connecting 30 pieces of equipment. Ultimately the facility will have ultra-high vacuum pipelines of about 500 metres, connecting more than 100 large pieces of equipment, Ding said.

I gather Nano-X is part of the Suzhou Industrial Park’s Nanopolis. I’m somewhat confused about Nanopolis since I wrote in a Sept.. 26, 2014 posting that it hadn’t yet opened officially but the Nanopolis Background webpage suggests is been open since 2013,

On the journey of starting a new undertaking led by the industry transformation and upgrading campaign, Suzhou Industrial Park has chosen the nanotech application industry as the strategic emerging industry to lead the campaign, as the first one in China that has taken this initiative. 

officially [sic] put into use  in 2013 as a key component of the nanotech advancement strategy, and has developed into the main battlefield of Suzhou Industrial Park for nanotechnology applications.

In the concept of “industry ecosystem” for nanotech applications, Nanopolis Suzhou focuses on new sectors, pools creative resources and invents new models to build a high-end, leading platform that’s innovation and development friendly so as to promote the transformation and upgrading of the regional industries.

In any event, Nanopolis now bills itself as (from the Nanopolis Overview webpage),

… the world’s largest hub of nanotech innovation and commercialization [emphasis mine] with a floorage of 100 acres and a planned construction area of 1.5 million m2. Besides,it’s also the China International Nanotech Innovation Cluster and the core area of the National Nano Hi-tech Industry Base.

I imagine there will be many openings for buildings and other initiatives.

Edible water bottles by Ooho!

Courtesy: Skipping Rocks Lab

As far as I’m concerned, that looks more like a breast implant than a water bottle, which, from a psycho-social perspective, could lead to some interesting research papers. It is, in fact a new type of water bottle.  From an April 10, 2017 article by Adele Peters for Fast Company (Note: Links have been removed),

If you run in a race in London in the near future and pass a hydration station, you may be handed a small, bubble-like sphere of water instead of a bottle. The gelatinous packaging, called the Ooho, is compostable–or even edible, if you want to swallow it. And after two years of development, its designers are ready to bring it to market.

Three London-based design students first created a prototype of the edible bottle in 2014 as an alternative to plastic bottles. The idea gained internet hype (though also some scorn for a hilarious video that made the early prototypes look fairly impossible to use without soaking yourself).
The problem it was designed to solve–the number of disposable bottles in landfills–keeps growing. In the U.K. alone, around 16 million are trashed each day; another 19 million are recycled, but still have the environmental footprint of a product made from oil. In the U.S., recycling rates are even lower. …

The new packaging is based on the culinary technique of spherification, which is also used to make fake caviar and the tiny juice balls added to boba tea [bubble tea?]. Dip a ball of ice in calcium chloride and brown algae extract, and you can form a spherical membrane that keeps holding the ice as it melts and returns to room temperature.

An April 25, 2014 article by Kashmira Gander for Independent.co.uk describes the technology and some of the problems that had to be solved before bringing this product to market,

To make the bottle [Ooho!], students at the Imperial College London gave a frozen ball of water a gelatinous layer by dipping it into a calcium chloride solution.

They then soaked the ball in another solution made from brown algae extract to encapsulate the ice in a second membrane, and reinforce the structure.

However, Ooho still has teething problems, as the membrane is only as thick as a fruit skin, and therefore makes transporting the object more difficult than a regular bottle of water.

“This is a problem we’re trying to address with a double container,” Rodrigo García González, who created Ooho with fellow students Pierre Paslier and Guillaume Couche, explained to the Smithsonian. “The idea is that we can pack several individual edible Oohos into a bigger Ooho container [to make] a thicker and more resistant membrane.”

According to Peters’ Fast Company article, the issues have been resolved,

Because the membrane is made from food ingredients, you can eat it instead of throwing it away. The Jell-O-like packaging doesn’t have a natural taste, but it’s possible to add flavors to make it more appetizing.

The package doesn’t have to be eaten every time, since it’s also compostable. “When people try it for the first time, they want to eat it because it’s part of the experience,” says Pierre Paslier, cofounder of Skipping Rocks Lab, the startup developing the packaging. “Then it will be just like the peel of a fruit. You’re not expected to eat the peel of your orange or banana. We are trying to follow the example set by nature for packaging.”

The outer layer of the package is always meant to be peeled like fruit–one thin outer layer of the membrane peels away to keep the inner layer clean and can then be composted. (While compostable cups are an alternative solution, many can only be composted in industrial facilities; the Ooho can be tossed on a simple home compost pile, where it will decompose within weeks).

The company is targeting both outdoor events and cafes. “Where we see a lot of potential for Ooho is outdoor events–festivals, marathons, places where basically there are a lot of people consuming packaging over a very short amount of time,” says Paslier.

I encourage you to read Peters’ article in its entirety if you have the time. You can also find more information on the Skipping Rocks Lab website and on the company’s crowdfunding campaign on CrowdCube.

York University (Toronto, Ontario, Canada) research team creates 3D beating heart and matters of the heart at the Ontario Institute for Regenerative Medicine

I have two items about cardiac research in Ontario. Not strictly speaking about nanotechnology, the two items do touch on topics covered here before, 3D organs and stem cells.

York University and its 3D beating heart

A Feb. 9, 2017 York University news release (also on EurekAlert), describe an innovative approach to creating 3D heart tissue,

Matters of the heart can be complicated, but York University scientists have found a way to create 3D heart tissue that beats in synchronized harmony, like a heart in love, that will lead to better understanding of cardiac health, and improved treatments.

York U chemistry Professor Muhammad Yousaf and his team of grad students have devised a way to stick three different types of cardiac cells together, like Velcro, to make heart tissue that beats as one.

Until now, most 2D and 3D in vitro tissue did not beat in harmony and required scaffolding for the cells to hold onto and grow, causing limitations. In this research, Yousaf and his team made a scaffold free beating tissue out of three cell types found in the heart – contractile cardiac muscle cells, connective tissue cells and vascular cells.

The researchers believe this is the first 3D in vitro cardiac tissue with three cell types that can beat together as one entity rather than at different intervals.

“This breakthrough will allow better and earlier drug testing, and potentially eliminate harmful or toxic medications sooner,” said Yousaf of York U’s Faculty of Science.

In addition, the substance used to stick cells together (ViaGlue), will provide researchers with tools to create and test 3D in vitro cardiac tissue in their own labs to study heart disease and issues with transplantation. Cardiovascular associated diseases are the leading cause of death globally and are responsible for 40 per cent of deaths in North America.

“Making in vitro 3D cardiac tissue has long presented a challenge to scientists because of the high density of cells and muscularity of the heart,” said Dmitry Rogozhnikov, a chemistry PhD student at York. “For 2D or 3D cardiac tissue to be functional it needs the same high cellular density and the cells must be in contact to facilitate synchronized beating.”

Although the 3D cardiac tissue was created at a millimeter scale, larger versions could be made, said Yousaf, who has created a start-up company OrganoLinX to commercialize the ViaGlue reagent and to provide custom 3D tissues on demand.

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

Scaffold Free Bio-orthogonal Assembly of 3-Dimensional Cardiac Tissue via Cell Surface Engineering by Dmitry Rogozhnikov, Paul J. O’Brien, Sina Elahipanah, & Muhammad N. Yousaf. Scientific Reports 6, Article number: 39806 (2016) doi:10.1038/srep39806 Published online: 23 December 2016

This paper is open access.

Ontario Institute for Regenerative Medicine and its heart stem cell research

Steven Erwood has written about how Toronto has become a centre for certain kinds of cardiac research by focusing on specific researchers in a Feb. 13, 2017 posting on the Ontario Institute for Regenerative Medicine’s expression blog (Note: Links have been removed),

You may have heard that Paris is the city of love, but you might not know that Toronto specializes in matters of the heart, particularly broken hearts.

Dr. Ren Ke Li, an investigator with the Ontario Institute for Regenerative Medicine, established his lab at the Toronto General Hospital Research Institute in 1993 hoping to find a way to replace the muscle cells, or cardiomyocytes, that are lost after a heart attack. Specifically, Li hoped to transplant a collection of cells, called stem cells, into a heart damaged by a heart attack. Stem cells have the power to differentiate into virtually any cell type, so if Li could coax them to become cardiomyocytes, they could theoretically reverse the damage caused by the heart attack.

Over the years, Li’s experiments using stem cells to regenerate and repair damaged heart tissue, which progressed all the way through to human clinical trials, pushed Li to rethink his approach to heart repair. Most of the transplanted cells failed to engraft to the host tissue and many of those that did successfully integrate into the patient’s heart remained non-contractile, sitting still beside the rest of the beating heart muscle. Despite this, the treatments were still proving beneficial — albeit less beneficial than Li had hoped. These cells weren’t replacing the lost cardiomyocytes, but they were still helping the patient recover. Li was then just beginning to reveal something that is now well described: transplanting exogenous stem cells (originating outside the patient) onto damaged tissue stimulated the endogenous stem cells to repair that damage. These transplanted stem cells were changing the behaviour of the patient’s own stem cells, enhancing their response to injury.

Li calls this process “rejuvenation” — arguing that the reason older populations can’t recover from cardiac injury is because they have fewer stem cells, and those stem cells have lost their ability to repair and regenerate damaged tissue over time. Li argues that the positive effects he was seeing in his experiments and clinical trials was a restoration or reversal of age-related deterioration in repair capability — a rejuvenation of the aged heart.

Li, alongside fellow OIRM [Ontario Institute for Regenerative Medicine] researcher and cardiac surgeon at Toronto General Hospital, Dr. Richard Weisel, dedicated a large part of their research effort to understanding this process. Weisel explains, “We put young cells into old animals, and we can get them to respond to a heart attack like a young person — which is remarkable!”

A team of researchers led by the duo published an article in Basic Research in Cardiology last month describing a new method to rejuvenate the aged heart, and characterizing this rejuvenation at the molecular and cellular level.

Successfully advancing this research to the clinic is where Weisel thinks Toronto provides a unique advantage. “We have the ability to do the clinical trials — the same people who are working on these projects [in the lab], can also take them into the clinic, and a lot of other places in the world [the clinicians and the researchers] are separate. We’ve been doing that for all the areas of stem cell research.” This unique set of circumstances, Weisel argues, more readily allows for a successful transition from research to clinical practice.

But an integrated research and clinical environment isn’t all the city has to offer to those looking to make substantial progress in stem cell therapies. Dr. Michael Laflamme, OIRM researcher and a leading authority on stem cell therapies for cardiac repair, called his decision to relocate to Toronto from the University of Washington in Seattle “a no-brainer”.

Laflamme focuses on improving the existing approaches to exogenous stem cell transplantation in cardiac repair and believes that solving the problems Li faced in his early experiments is just a matter of finding the right cell type. Laflamme, in an ongoing preclinical trial funded by OIRM, is differentiating stem cells in a bioreactor into ventricular cardiomyocytes, the specific type of cell lost after a heart attack, and delivering those cells directly to the scar tissue in hopes of turning it back into muscle. Laflamme is optimistic these ventricular cardiomyocytes might be just the cell type he’s looking for. Using these cells in animal models, although in a mixture of other cardiac cell types, Laflamme explains, “We’ve shown that those cells will stably engraft and they actually become electrically integrated with the rest of the tissue — they will [beat] in synchrony with the rest of the heart.”

Laflamme states that “Toronto is the place where we can get this stuff done better and we can get it done faster,” citing the existing Toronto-based expertise in both the differentiation of stem cells and the biotechnological means to scale these processes as being unparalleled elsewhere in the world.

It’s not only academic researchers and clinicians that recognize Toronto’s potential to advance regenerative medicine and stem cell therapy. Pharmaceutical giant Bayer, partnered with San Francisco-based venture capital firm Versant Ventures, announced last December a USD 225 million investment in a stem cell biotechnology company called BlueRock Therapeutics — the second largest investment of it’s kind in the history of the biotechnology industry. …

There’s substantially to more Erwood’s piece in the original posting.

One final thought, I wonder if there is a possibility that York University’s ViaGlue might be useful in the work talking place at Ontario Institute for Regenerative Medicine. I realize the two institutions are in the same city but do the researchers even know about each other’s work?

Detonating (exploding) your way to graphene

Physicists at Kansas State University use controlled detonation to make graphene according to a Jan. 25, 2017 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

Forget chemicals, catalysts and expensive machinery — a Kansas State University team of physicists has discovered a way to mass-produce graphene with three ingredients: hydrocarbon gas, oxygen and a spark plug.

Their method is simple: Fill a chamber with acetylene or ethylene gas and oxygen. Use a vehicle spark plug to create a contained detonation. Collect the graphene that forms afterward.

Chris Sorensen, Cortelyou-Rust university distinguished professor of physics, is the lead inventor of the recently issued patent, “Process for high-yield production of graphene via detonation of carbon-containing material”. Other Kansas State University researchers involved include Arjun Nepal, postdoctoral researcher and instructor of physics, and Gajendra Prasad Singh, former visiting scientist.

For further reading here’s the Jan. 25, 2017 Kansas State University news release, which originated the news item,

“We have discovered a viable process to make graphene,” Sorensen said. “Our process has many positive properties, from the economic feasibility, the possibility for large-scale production and the lack of nasty chemicals. What might be the best property of all is that the energy required to make a gram of graphene through our process is much less than other processes because all it takes is a single spark.”

Graphene is a single atom-thick sheet of hexagonally coordinated carbon atoms, which makes it the world’s thinnest material. Since graphene was isolated in 2004, scientists have found it has valuable physical and electronic properties with many possible applications, such as more efficient rechargeable batteries or better electronics.

For Sorensen’s research team, the serendipitous path to creating graphene started when they were developing and patenting carbon soot aerosol gels. They created the gels by filling a 17-liter aluminum chamber with acetylene gas and oxygen. Using a spark plug, they created a detonation in the chamber. The soot from the detonation formed aerosol gels that looked like “black angel food cake,” Sorensen said.

But after further analysis, the researchers found that the aerosol gel was more than lookalike dark angel food cake — it was graphene.

“We made graphene by serendipity,” Sorensen said. “We didn’t plan on making graphene. We planned on making the aerosol gel and we got lucky.”

But unlike other methods of creating graphene, Sorensen’s method is simple, efficient, low-cost and scalable for industry.

Other methods of creating graphene involve “cooking” the mineral graphite with chemicals — such as sulfuric acid, sodium nitrate, potassium permanganate or hydrazine — for a long time at precisely prescribed temperatures. Additional methods involve heating hydrocarbons to 1,000 degrees Celsius in the presence of catalysts.

Such methods are energy intensive — and even dangerous — and have low yield, while Sorensen and his team’s method makes larger quantities with minimal energy and no dangerous chemicals.

“The real charm of our experiment is that we can produce graphene in the quantity of grams rather than milligrams,” Nepal said.

Now the research team — including Justin Wright, doctoral student in physics, Camp Hill, Pennsylvania — is working to improve the quality of the graphene and scale the laboratory process to an industrial level. They are upgrading some of the equipment to make it easier to get graphene from the chamber seconds — rather than minutes — after the detonation. Accessing the graphene more quickly could improve the quality of the material, Sorensen said.

The patent was issued to the Kansas State University Research Foundation, a nonprofit corporation responsible for managing technology transfer activities at the university.

I wish they’d filmed one of their graphene explosions even if it meant that all we’d get is the sight of a canister and the sound of a boom. Still, they did show a brief spark from the spark plug.

Clay nanosheets and world food security

This is some interesting agricultural research from Australia. From a Jan. 11, 2017 news item on phys.org,

A University of Queensland team has made a discovery that could help conquer the greatest threat to global food security – pests and diseases in plants.

Research leader Professor Neena Mitter said BioClay – an environmentally sustainable alternative to chemicals and pesticides – could be a game-changer for crop protection.

“In agriculture, the need for new control agents grows each year, driven by demand for greater production, the effects of climate change, community and regulatory demands, and toxicity and pesticide resistance,” she said.

“Our disruptive research involves a spray of nano-sized degradable clay used to release double-stranded RNA, that protects plants from specific disease-causing pathogens.”

The research, by scientists from the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation (QAAFI) and UQ’s Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (AIBN) is published in Nature Plants.

A Jan. 11, 2017 University of Queensland press release, which originated the news item, provides a bit more detail,

Professor Mitter said the technology reduced the use of pesticides without altering the genome of the plants.

“Once BioClay is applied, the plant ‘thinks’ it is being attacked by a disease or pest insect and responds by protecting itself from the targeted pest or disease.

“A single spray of BioClay protects the plant and then degrades, reducing the risk to the environment or human health.”

She said BioClay met consumer demands for sustainable crop protection and residue-free produce.

“The cleaner approach will value-add to the food and agri-business industry, contributing to global food security and to a cleaner, greener image of Queensland.”

AIBN’s Professor Zhiping Xu said BioClay combined nanotechnology and biotechnology.

“It will produce huge benefits for agriculture in the next several decades, and the applications will expand into a much wider field of primary agricultural production,” Professor Xu said.

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

Clay nanosheets for topical delivery of RNAi for sustained protection against plant viruses by Neena Mitter, Elizabeth A. Worrall, Karl E. Robinson, Peng Li, Ritesh G. Jain, Christelle Taochy, Stephen J. Fletcher, Bernard J. Carroll, G. Q. (Max) Lu & Zhi Ping Xu. Nature Plants 3, Article number: 16207 (2017) doi:10.1038/nplants.2016.207 Published online: 09 January 2017

This paper is behind a paywall.

I don’t usually do this but here’s the abstract for the paper,

Topical application of pathogen-specific double-stranded RNA (dsRNA) for virus resistance in plants represents an attractive alternative to transgenic RNA interference (RNAi). However, the instability of naked dsRNA sprayed on plants has been a major challenge towards its practical application. We demonstrate that dsRNA can be loaded on designer, non-toxic, degradable, layered double hydroxide (LDH) clay nanosheets. Once loaded on LDH, the dsRNA does not wash off, shows sustained release and can be detected on sprayed leaves even 30 days after application. We provide evidence for the degradation of LDH, dsRNA uptake in plant cells and silencing of homologous RNA on topical application. Significantly, a single spray of dsRNA loaded on LDH (BioClay) afforded virus protection for at least 20 days when challenged on sprayed and newly emerged unsprayed leaves. This innovation translates nanotechnology developed for delivery of RNAi for human therapeutics to use in crop protection as an environmentally sustainable and easy to adopt topical spray.

It helps a bit but I’m puzzled by the description of BioClay as an alternative to RNAi in the first sentence because the last sentence has: “This innovation translates nanotechnology developed for delivery of RNAi … .” I believe what they’re saying is that LDH clay nanosheets were developed for delivery of RNAi but have now been adapted for delivery of dsRNA. Maybe?

At any rate this paper is behind a paywall.