Category Archives: biomimcry

Netting oil spills the nano way

Given current local events (April 8, 2015 oil spill in English Bay of 2700 litres (or more) of fuel in Vancouver, Canada), this news item about a mesh useful for oil cleanups seems quite timely. From an April 15, 2015 news item on ScienceDaily,

The unassuming piece of stainless steel mesh in a lab at The Ohio State University doesn’t look like a very big deal, but it could make a big difference for future environmental cleanups.

Water passes through the mesh but oil doesn’t, thanks to a nearly invisible oil-repelling coating on its surface.

In tests, researchers mixed water with oil and poured the mixture onto the mesh. The water filtered through the mesh to land in a beaker below. The oil collected on top of the mesh, and rolled off easily into a separate beaker when the mesh was tilted.

The mesh coating is among a suite of nature-inspired nanotechnologies under development at Ohio State and described in two papers in the journal Nature Scientific Reports. Potential applications range from cleaning oil spills to tracking oil deposits underground.

An April 15, 2015 Ohio State University news release (also on EurekAlert*) by Pam Frost Gorder, which originated the news item, expands on the theme (unusually I’ve left the links undisturbed),

“If you scale this up, you could potentially catch an oil spill with a net,” said Bharat Bhushan, Ohio Eminent Scholar and Howard D. Winbigler Professor of mechanical engineering at Ohio State.

The work was partly inspired by lotus leaves, whose bumpy surfaces naturally repel water but not oil. To create a coating that did the opposite, Bhushan and postdoctoral researcher Philip Brown chose to cover a bumpy surface with a polymer embedded with molecules of surfactant—the stuff that gives cleaning power to soap and detergent.

They sprayed a fine dusting of silica nanoparticles onto the stainless steel mesh to create a randomly bumpy surface and layered the polymer and surfactant on top.

The silica, surfactant, polymer, and stainless steel are all non-toxic and relatively inexpensive, said Brown. He estimated that a larger mesh net could be created for less than a dollar per square foot.

Because the coating is only a few hundred nanometers (billionths of a meter) thick, it is mostly undetectable. To the touch, the coated mesh doesn’t feel any bumpier than uncoated mesh. The coated mesh is a little less shiny, though, because the coating is only 70 percent transparent.

The researchers chose silica in part because it is an ingredient in glass, and they wanted to explore this technology’s potential for creating smudge-free glass coatings. At 70 percent transparency, the coating could work for certain automotive glass applications, such as mirrors, but not most windows or smartphone surfaces.

“Our goal is to reach a transparency in the 90-percent range,” Bhushan said. “In all our coatings, different combinations of ingredients in the layers yield different properties. The trick is to select the right layers.”

He explains that combinations of layers yield nanoparticles that bind to oil instead of repelling it. Such particles could be used to detect oil underground or aid removal in the case of oil spills.

The shape of the nanostructures plays a role, as well. In another project, research assistant Dave Maharaj is investigating what happens when a surface is made of nanotubes. Rather than silica, he experiments with molybdenum disulfide nanotubes, which mix well with oil. The nanotubes are approximately a thousand times smaller than a human hair.

Maharaj measured the friction on the surface of the nanotubes, and compressed them to test how they would hold up under pressure.

“There are natural defects in the structure of the nanotubes,” he said. “And under high loads, the defects cause the layers of the tubes to peel apart and create a slippery surface, which greatly reduces friction.”

Bhushan envisions that the molybdenum compound’s compatibility with oil, coupled with its ability to reduce friction, would make it a good additive for liquid lubricants. In addition, for micro- and nanoscale devices, commercial oils may be too sticky to allow for their efficient operation. Here, he suspects that the molybdenum nanotubes alone could be used to reduce friction.

This work began more than 10 years ago, when Bhushan began building and patenting nano-structured coatings that mimic the texture of the lotus leaf. From there, he and his team have worked to amplify the effect and tailor it for different situations.

“We’ve studied so many natural surfaces, from leaves to butterfly wings and shark skin, to understand how nature solves certain problems,” Bhushan said. “Now we want to go beyond what nature does, in order to solve new problems.”

“Nature reaches a limit of what it can do,” agreed Brown. “To repel synthetic materials like oils, we need to bring in another level of chemistry that nature doesn’t have access to.”

This work was partly funded by the American Chemical Society Petroleum Research Fund, the National Science Foundation, and Dexerials Corporation (formerly a chemical division of Sony Corp.) in Japan.

Here are links to and citations for the papers,

Mechanically durable, superoleophobic coatings prepared by layer-by-layer technique for anti-smudge and oil-water separation by Philip S. Brow & Bharat Bhushan. Scientific Reports 5, Article number: 8701 doi:10.1038/srep08701 Published 03 March 2015

Nanomechanical behavior of MoS2 and WS2 multi-walled nanotubes and Carbon nanohorns by Dave Maharaj, & Bharat Bhushan. Scientific Reports 5, Article number: 8539 doi:10.1038/srep08539 Published 23 February 2015

Both papers are open access.

* EurekAlert link added Apr.16, 2015 at 1300 PST.

Evolution-in-materio and unconventional computing

Training materials such as carbon nanotubes to imitate electronic circuits? Welcome to the world of evolution-in-materio and unconventional computing. From an April 7, 2015 news item on ScienceDaily,

As we approach the miniaturization limits of conventional electronics, alternatives to silicon-based transistors — the building blocks of the multitude of electronic devices we’ve come to rely on — are being hotly pursued.

Inspired by the way living organisms have evolved in nature to perform complex tasks with remarkable ease, a group of researchers from Durham University in the U.K. and the University of São Paulo-USP in Brazil is exploring similar “evolutionary” methods to create information processing devices.

An April 7, 2015 American Institute of Physics (AIP) news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, delves into the research itself and the emerging field to which it belongs,

In the Journal of Applied Physics, from AIP Publishing, the group describes using single-walled carbon nanotube composites (SWCNTs) as a material in “unconventional” computing. By studying the mechanical and electrical properties of the materials, they discovered a correlation between SWCNT concentration/viscosity/conductivity and the computational capability of the composite.

“Instead of creating circuits from arrays of discrete components (transistors in digital electronics), our work takes a random disordered material and then ‘trains’ the material to produce a desired output,” said Mark K. Massey, research associate, School of Engineering and Computing Sciences at Durham University.

This emerging field of research is known as “evolution-in-materio,” a term coined by Julian Miller at the University of York in the U.K. What exactly is it? An interdisciplinary field blends together materials science, engineering and computer science. Although still in its early stages, the concept has already shown that by using an approach similar to natural evolution, materials can be trained to mimic electronic circuits–without needing to design the material structure in a specific way.

“The material we use in our work is a mixture of carbon nanotubes and polymer, which creates a complex electrical structure,” explained Massey. “When voltages (stimuli) are applied at points of the material, its electrical properties change. When the correct signals are applied to the material, it can be trained or ‘evolved’ to perform a useful function.”

While the group doesn’t expect to see their method compete with high-speed silicon computers, it could turn out to be a complementary technology. “With more research, it could lead to new techniques for making electronics devices,” he noted. The approach may find applications within the realm of “analog signal processing or low-power, low-cost devices in the future.”

Beyond pursuing the current methodology of evolution-in-materio, the next stage of the group’s research will be to investigate evolving devices as part of the material fabrication “hardware-in-the-loop” evolution. “This exciting approach could lead to further enhancements in the field of evolvable electronics,” said Massey.

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

Computing with carbon nanotubes: Optimization of threshold logic gates using disordered nanotube/polymer composites by using disordered nanotube/polymer composites by M. K. Massey, A. Kotsialos, F. Qaiser, D. A. Zeze, C. Pearson, D. Volpati, L. Bowen, and M. C. Petty. J. Appl. Phys. 117, 134903 (2015);

This paper appears to be open access.

Also, the researchers have produced a video,

Credit: Mark Massey/Durham University

Final comment, I am gobsmacked and fascinated.

Rubbery lettuce is a good thing

The lettuce we eat was cultivated from prickly lettuce, which is now considered a weed. That status may change if scientists at Washington State University (WSU) are successful with their research into the plant’s ability to produce rubber. From an April 6, 2014 WSU news release by Sylvia Kantor (also on EurekAlert),

Prickly lettuce, a common weed that has long vexed farmers, has potential as a new cash crop providing raw material for rubber production, according to Washington State University scientists.

Writing in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, they describe regions in the plant’s genetic code linked to rubber production. The findings open the way for breeding for desired traits and developing a new crop source for rubber in the Pacific Northwest.

“I think there’s interest in developing a temperate-climate source of natural rubber,” said Ian Burke, a weed scientist at WSU and a study author. “It would be really great if prickly lettuce could become one of those crops.”

Here’s what prickly lettuce looks like,

Prickly lettuce, the wild relative of cultivated lettuce, is a potential source for the production of natural rubber. (Photo by Flickr user Jim Kennedy)

Prickly lettuce, the wild relative of cultivated lettuce, is a potential source for the production of natural rubber. (Photo by Flickr user Jim Kennedy)

Here’s a close-up of a prickly lettuce stem with sap,

The milky sap, or latex, of the plant could be used to produce rubber. (Photo by Jared Bell, WSU)

The milky sap, or latex, of the plant could be used to produce rubber. (Photo by Jared Bell, WSU)

Getting back to the prickly lettuce news release,

When the lettuce we eat and grow in our gardens bolts, a milky white sap bleeds from the stem. In prickly lettuce, the wild relative and ancestor of cultivated lettuce, this same substance could prove to be an economically viable source of natural rubber and help alleviate a worldwide threat to rubber production.

Natural rubber is the main ingredient for many everyday products, from boots to condoms to surgical gloves. Roughly 70 percent of the global supply of rubber is used in tires.

But more than half of rubber products are made from synthetic rubber derived from petrochemical sources. And the largest source of natural rubber, the Brazilian rubber tree, is threatened by disease.

Burke has reviewed many studies of prickly lettuce and its cultivated cousins, but one in particular gave him an idea. A study published in 2006 found that the latex in prickly lettuce was very similar to the polymers found in natural rubber.

“It occurred to me that we could grow the heck out of prickly lettuce in eastern Washington,” he said.

Genetic markers for desired traits

He knew that to develop a viable new crop for rubber production, he had to start by understanding the genetics of rubber production in the plant.

Burke, doctoral student Jared Bell and molecular plant scientist Michael Neff began their studies with two distinct samples of prickly lettuce collected from eastern Washington. These differed in their rubber content, leaf shape and tendency to bolt. The scientists were able to identify genetic markers not only for rubber content but for the way the plants grow, including the number of stems produced and bolting.

Sought-after traits in cultivated lettuce – like abundant leaves, a single stem and delayed bolting – are the exact opposite of traits desired for rubber production. Early bolting plants with multiple stems would allow for multiple harvests over the season and potentially maximize rubber yields.

Burke said that selecting for other traits, like water use efficiency, could allow prickly lettuce to be grown with minimal rainfall, meaning it could be grown in rotation with other crops.

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

Genetic and Biochemical Evaluation of Natural Rubber from Eastern Washington Prickly Lettuce (Lactuca serriola L.) by Jared L. Bell, Ian C. Burke, and Michael M. Neff. J. Agric. Food Chem., 2015, 63 (2), pp 593–602 DOI: 10.1021/jf503934v Publication Date (Web): December 16, 2014

Copyright © 2014 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Since graduating, Bell has become  associated with Dow Agrosciences.

A Venus flower basket sea sponge has strength

Despite being made essentially of glass, the skeleton of the sea sponge known as Venus' flower basket is remarkably strong -- right down to the tiny, hair-like fibers that hold the creatures to the sea floor. Researchers from Brown University have shown that those fibers, called spicules, have an intricate internal structure that is fine-tuned to boost strength. The findings could inform the engineering of human-made materials. Credit: Kesari Lab / Brown University

Despite being made essentially of glass, the skeleton of the sea sponge known as Venus’ flower basket is remarkably strong — right down to the tiny, hair-like fibers that hold the creatures to the sea floor. Researchers from Brown University have shown that those fibers, called spicules, have an intricate internal structure that is fine-tuned to boost strength. The findings could inform the engineering of human-made materials.
Credit: Kesari Lab / Brown University

I’m not sure how anyone saw a flower basket in that sponge but I bow to a more poetic soul. In any event, scientists at Brown University (US) have shown that this sponge has unexpected strength according to an April 6, 2015 news item on ScienceDaily,

Life may seem precarious for the sea sponge known as Venus’ flower basket. Tiny, hair-like appendages made essentially of glass are all that hold the creatures to their seafloor homes. But fear not for these creatures of the deep. Those tiny lifelines, called basalia spicules, are fine-tuned for strength, according to new research led by Brown University engineers.

In a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers show that the secret to spicules’ strength lies in their remarkable internal structure. The spicules, each only 50 microns in diameter, are made of a silica (glass) core surrounded by 10 to 50 concentric cylinders of glass, each separated by an ultra-thin layer of an organic material. The walls of each cylinder gradually decrease in thickness moving from the core toward the outside edge of the spicule.

An April 6, 2015 Brown University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the research in more detail,

When Haneesh Kesari, assistant professor of engineering at Brown, first saw this structure, he wasn’t sure what to make of it. But the pattern of decreasing thickness caught his eye.

“It was not at all clear to me what this pattern was for, but it looked like a figure from a math book,” Kesari said. “It had such mathematical regularity to it that I thought it had to be for something useful and important to the animal.”

The lives of these sponges depend on their ability to stay fixed to the sea floor. They sustain themselves by filtering nutrients out of the water, which they cannot do if they’re being cast about with the flow. So it would make sense, Kesari thought, that natural selection may have molded the creatures’ spicule anchors into models of strength — and the thickness pattern could be a contributing factor.

“If it can’t anchor, it can’t survive,” Kesari said. “So we thought this internal structure must be contributing to these spicules being a better anchor.”

To find out, Kesari worked with graduate student Michael Monn to build a mathematical model of the spicules’ structure. Among the model’s assumptions was that the organic layers between the glass cylinders allowed the cylinders to slide against each other.

“We prepared a mechanical model of this system and asked the question: Of all possible ways the thicknesses of the layers can vary, how should they vary so that the spicule’s anchoring ability is maximized?” Kesari said.

The model predicted that the structure’s load capacity would be greatest when the layers decrease in thickness toward the outside, just as was initially observed in actual spicules. Kesari and Monn then worked with James Weaver and Joanna Aizenberg of Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, who have worked with this sponge species for years. The team carefully compared the layer thicknesses predicted by the mechanics model to the actual layer thicknesses in more than a hundred spicule samples from sponges.

The work showed that the predictions made by the model matched very closely with the observed layer thicknesses in the samples. “It appears that the arrangement and thicknesses of these layers does indeed contribute to the spicules’ strength, which helps make them better anchors,” Kesari said.

The researchers say this is the first time to their knowledge that anyone has evaluated the mechanical advantage of this particular arrangement of layers. It could add to the list of useful engineered structures inspired by nature.

“In the engineered world, you see all kinds of instances where the external geometry of a structure is modified to enhance its specific strength — I-beams are one example,” Monn said. “But you don’t see a huge effort focused toward the internal mechanical design of these structures.”

This study, however, suggests that sponge spicules could provide a blueprint for load-bearing beams made stronger from the inside out.

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

New functional insights into the internal architecture of the laminated anchor spicules of Euplectella aspergillum by Michael A. Monn, James C. Weaver, Tianyang Zhang, Joanna Aizenberg, and Haneesh Kesari. Published online before print April 6, 2015, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1415502112 PNAS April 6, 2015

This paper is behind a paywall.

How geckos self-clean, even in dusty environments

An Australian research team claims a world first with regard to ‘gecko research’ according to a March 16, 2014 news item on ScienceDaily,

In a world first, a research team including James Cook University [JCU] scientists has discovered how geckos manage to stay clean, even in dusty deserts.

The process, described in Interface, a journal of the Royal Society, may also turn out to have important human applications.

JCU’s Professor Lin Schwarzkopf said the group found that tiny droplets of water on geckos, for instance from condensing dew, come into contact with hundreds of thousands of extremely small hair-like spines that cover the animals’ bodies.

A March 16, 2015 JCU press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail,

“If you have seen how drops of water roll off a car after it is waxed, or off a couch that’s had protective spray used on it, you’ve seen the process happening,” she said. “The wax and spray make the surface very bumpy at micro and nano levels, and the water droplets remain as little balls, which roll easily and come off with gravity or even a slight wind.”

The geckos’ hair-like spines trap pockets of air and work on the same principle, but have an even more dramatic effect. Through a scanning electron microscope, tiny water droplets can be seen rolling into each other and jumping like popcorn off the skin of the animal as they merge and release energy.

Scientists were aware that hydrophobic surfaces repelled water, and that the rolling droplets helped clean the surfaces of leaves and insects, but this is the first time it has been documented in a vertebrate animal. Box-patterned geckos live in semi-arid habitats, with little rain but may have dew forming on them when the temperature drops overnight.

Professor Schwarzkopf said the process may help geckos keep clean, as the water can carry small particles of dust and dirt away from their body. “They tend to live in dry environments where they can’t depend on it raining, and this keeps process them clean,” she said.

She said there were possible applications for marine-based electronics that have to shed water quickly in use and for possible “superhydrophobic” clothing that would not get wet or dirty and would never need washing.

I’ve been reading about self-cleaning products for years now. (sigh) Where are they? Despite this momentary lapse into sighing and wailing, I am much encouraged that scientists are still trying to figure out how to create self-cleaning products.

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

Removal mechanisms of dew via self-propulsion off the gecko skin by Gregory S. Watson, Lin Schwarzkopf, Bronwen W. Cribb, Sverre Myhra, Marty Gellender, and Jolanta A. Watson.
Interface, April 2015, Volume: 12 Issue: 105 DOI: 10.1098/rsif.2014.1396 Published 11 March 2015

This paper is open access.

Chameleon-like artificial skin

A March 12, 2015 news item on describes artificial skin inspired by chameleons,

Borrowing a trick from nature, engineers from the University of California at Berkeley have created an incredibly thin, chameleon-like material that can be made to change color—on demand—by simply applying a minute amount of force.

This new material-of-many-colors offers intriguing possibilities for an entirely new class of display technologies, color-shifting camouflage, and sensors that can detect otherwise imperceptible defects in buildings, bridges, and aircraft.

“This is the first time anybody has made a flexible chameleon-like skin that can change color simply by flexing it,” said Connie J. Chang-Hasnain, a member of the Berkeley team and co-author on a paper published today in Optica, The Optical Society’s (OSA) new journal.

A March 12, 2015 OSA news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more information about this structural color project,

The colors we typically see in paints, fabrics, and other natural substances occur when white, broad spectrum light strikes their surfaces. The unique chemical composition of each surface then absorbs various bands, or wavelengths of light. Those that aren’t absorbed are reflected back, with shorter wavelengths giving objects a blue hue and longer wavelengths appearing redder and the entire rainbow of possible combinations in between. Changing the color of a surface, such as the leaves on the trees in autumn, requires a change in chemical make-up.

Recently, engineers and scientists have been exploring another approach, one that would create designer colors without the use of chemical dyes and pigments. Rather than controlling the chemical composition of a material, it’s possible to control the surface features on the tiniest of scales so they interact and reflect particular wavelengths of light. This type of “structural color” is much less common in nature, but is used by some butterflies and beetles to create a particularly iridescent display of color.

Controlling light with structures rather than traditional optics is not new. In astronomy, for example, evenly spaced slits known as diffraction gratings are routinely used to direct light and spread it into its component colors. Efforts to control color with this technique, however, have proved impractical because the optical losses are simply too great.

The authors of the Optica paper applied a similar principle, though with a radically different design, to achieve the color control they were looking for. In place of slits cut into a film they instead etched rows of ridges onto a single, thin layer of silicon. Rather than spreading the light into a complete rainbow, however, these ridges — or bars — reflect a very specific wavelength of light. By “tuning” the spaces between the bars, it’s possible to select the specific color to be reflected. Unlike the slits in a diffraction grating, however, the silicon bars were extremely efficient and readily reflected the frequency of light they were tuned to.

Fascinatingly, the reflected colors can be selected (from the news release),

Since the spacing, or period, of the bars is the key to controlling the color they reflect, the researchers realized it would be possible to subtly shift the period — and therefore the color — by flexing or bending the material.

“If you have a surface with very precise structures, spaced so they can interact with a specific wavelength of light, you can change its properties and how it interacts with light by changing its dimensions,” said Chang-Hasnain.

Earlier efforts to develop a flexible, color shifting surface fell short on a number of fronts. Metallic surfaces, which are easy to etch, were inefficient, reflecting only a portion of the light they received. Other surfaces were too thick, limiting their applications, or too rigid, preventing them from being flexed with sufficient control.

The Berkeley researchers were able to overcome both these hurdles by forming their grating bars using a semiconductor layer of silicon approximately 120 nanometers thick. Its flexibility was imparted by embedding the silicon bars into a flexible layer of silicone. As the silicone was bent or flexed, the period of the grating spacings responded in kind.

The semiconductor material also allowed the team to create a skin that was incredibly thin, perfectly flat, and easy to manufacture with the desired surface properties. This produces materials that reflect precise and very pure colors and that are highly efficient, reflecting up to 83 percent of the incoming light.

Their initial design, subjected to a change in period of a mere 25 nanometers, created brilliant colors that could be shifted from green to yellow, orange, and red – across a 39-nanometer range of wavelengths. Future designs, the researchers believe, could cover a wider range of colors and reflect light with even greater efficiency.

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

Flexible photonic metastructures for tunable coloration by Li Zhu, Jonas Kapraun, James Ferrara, and Connie J. Chang-Hasnain. Optica, Vol. 2, Issue 3, pp. 255-258 (2015)

This paper is open access (for now at least).

Final note: I recently wrote about research into how real chameleons are able to effect colour changes in a March 16, 2015 post.

Chameleons (male panther chameleons in particular)—colour revelation

Caption: These are male panther chameleons (Furcifer pardalis) photographed in Madagascar. Credit: © Michel Milinkovitch

Caption: These are male panther chameleons (Furcifer pardalis) photographed in Madagascar.
Credit: © Michel Milinkovitch

Researchers at Switzerland’s University of Geneva/Université de Genève (UNIGE) have revealed the mechanisms (note the plural) by which chameleons change their colour. From a March 10, 2015 news item on,

Many chameleons have the remarkable ability to exhibit complex and rapid color changes during social interactions. A collaboration of scientists within the Sections of Biology and Physics of the Faculty of Science from the University of Geneva (UNIGE), Switzerland, unveils the mechanisms that regulate this phenomenon.

In a study published in Nature Communications [March 10, 2015], the team led by professors Michel Milinkovitch and Dirk van der Marel demonstrates that the changes take place via the active tuning of a lattice of nanocrystals present in a superficial layer of dermal cells called iridophores. The researchers also reveal the existence of a deeper population of iridophores with larger and less ordered crystals that reflect the infrared light. The organisation of iridophores into two superimposed layers constitutes an evolutionary novelty and it allows the chameleons to rapidly shift between efficient camouflage and spectacular display, while providing passive thermal protection.

Male chameleons are popular for their ability to change colorful adornments depending on their behaviour. If the mechanisms responsible for a transformation towards a darker skin are known, those that regulate the transition from a lively color to another vivid hue remained mysterious. Some species, such as the panther chameleon, are able to carry out such a change within one or two minutes to court a female or face a competing male.

A March 10, 2015 University of Geneva press release on EurekAlert (French language version is here on the university website), which originated the news item, explains the chameleon’s ability as being due to its ability to display structural colour,

Besides brown, red and yellow pigments, chameleons and other reptiles display so-called structural colors. «These colors are generated without pigments, via a physical phenomenon of optical interference. They result from interactions between certain wavelengths and nanoscopic structures, such as tiny crystals present in the skin of the reptiles», says Michel Milinkovitch, professor at the Department of Genetics and Evolution at UNIGE. These nanocrystals are arranged in layers that alternate with cytoplasm, within cells called iridophores. The structure thus formed allows a selective reflection of certain wavelengths, which contributes to the vivid colors of numerous reptiles.

To determine how the transition from one flashy color to another one is carried out in the panther chameleon, the researchers of two laboratories at UNIGE worked hand in hand, combining their expertise in both quantum physics and in evolutionary biology. «We discovered that the animal changes its colors via the active tuning of a lattice of nanocrystals. When the chameleon is calm, the latter are organised into a dense network and reflect the blue wavelengths. In contrast, when excited, it loosens its lattice of nanocrystals, which allows the reflection of other colors, such as yellows or reds», explain the physicist Jérémie Teyssier and the biologist Suzanne Saenko, co-first authors of the article. This constitutes a unique example of an auto-organised intracellular optical system controlled by the chameleon.

The press release goes on to note that the iridophores have another function,

The scientists also demonstrated the existence of a second deeper layer of iridophores. «These cells, which contain larger and less ordered crystals, reflect a substantial proportion of the infrared wavelengths», states Michel Milinkovitch. This forms an excellent protection against the thermal effects of high exposure to sun radiations in low-latitude regions.

The organisation of iridophores in two superimposed layers constitutes an evolutionary novelty: it allows the chameleons to rapidly shift between efficient camouflage and spectacular display, while providing passive thermal protection.

In their future research, the scientists will explore the mechanisms that explain the development of an ordered nanocrystals lattice within iridophores, as well as the molecular and cellular mechanisms that allow chameleons to control the geometry of this lattice.

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

Photonic crystals cause active colour change in chameleons by Jérémie Teyssier, Suzanne V. Saenko, Dirk van der Marel, & Michel C. Milinkovitch. Nature Communications 6, Article number: 6368 doi:10.1038/ncomms7368 Published 10 March 2015

This article is open access.

Blue-striped limpets and their nanophotonic features

This is a structural colour story limpets and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University. For the impatient here’s a video summary of the work courtesy of the researchers,

A Feb. 26, 2015 news item on ScienceDaily reiterates the details for those who like to read their science,

The blue-rayed limpet is a tiny mollusk that lives in kelp beds along the coasts of Norway, Iceland, the United Kingdom, Portugal, and the Canary Islands. These diminutive organisms — as small as a fingernail — might escape notice entirely, if not for a very conspicuous feature: bright blue dotted lines that run in parallel along the length of their translucent shells. Depending on the angle at which light hits, a limpet’s shell can flash brilliantly even in murky water.

Now scientists at MIT and Harvard University have identified two optical structures within the limpet’s shell that give its blue-striped appearance. The structures are configured to reflect blue light while absorbing all other wavelengths of incoming light. The researchers speculate that such patterning may have evolved to protect the limpet, as the blue lines resemble the color displays on the shells of more poisonous soft-bodied snails.

A Feb. 26, 2015 MIT news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, explains why this discovery is special,

The findings, reported this week in the journal Nature Communications, represent the first evidence of an organism using mineralized structural components to produce optical displays. While birds, butterflies, and beetles can display brilliant blues, among other colors, they do so with organic structures, such as feathers, scales, and plates. The limpet, by contrast, produces its blue stripes through an interplay of inorganic, mineral structures, arranged in such a way as to reflect only blue light.

The researchers say such natural optical structures may serve as a design guide for engineering color-selective, controllable, transparent displays that require no internal light source and could be incorporated into windows and glasses.

“Let’s imagine a window surface in a car where you obviously want to see the outside world as you’re driving, but where you also can overlay the real world with an augmented reality that could involve projecting a map and other useful information on the world that exists on the other side of the windshield,” says co-author Mathias Kolle, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at MIT. “We believe that the limpet’s approach to displaying color patterns in a translucent shell could serve as a starting point for developing such displays.”

The news release then reveals how this research came about,

Kolle, whose research is focused on engineering bioinspired, optical materials — including color-changing, deformable fibers — started looking into the optical features of the limpet when his brother Stefan, a marine biologist now working at Harvard, brought Kolle a few of the organisms in a small container. Stefan Kolle was struck by the mollusk’s brilliant patterning, and recruited his brother, along with several others, to delve deeper into the limpet shell’s optical properties.

To do this, the team of researchers — which also included Ling Li and Christine Ortiz at MIT and James Weaver and Joanna Aizenberg at Harvard — performed a detailed structural and optical analysis of the limpet shells. They observed that the blue stripes first appear in juveniles, resembling dashed lines. The stripes grow more continuous as a limpet matures, and their shade varies from individual to individual, ranging from deep blue to turquoise.

The researchers scanned the surface of a limpet’s shell using scanning electron microscopy, and found no structural differences in areas with and without the stripes — an observation that led them to think that perhaps the stripes arose from features embedded deeper in the shell.

To get a picture of what lay beneath, the researchers used a combination of high-resolution 2-D and 3-D structural analysis to reveal the 3-D nanoarchitecture of the photonic structures embedded in the limpets’ translucent shells.

What they found was revealing: In the regions with blue stripes, the shells’ top and bottom layers were relatively uniform, with dense stacks of calcium carbonate platelets and thin organic layers, similar to the shell structure of other mollusks. However, about 30 microns beneath the shell surface the researchers noted a stark difference. In these regions, the researchers found that the regular plates of calcium carbonate morphed into two distinct structural features: a multilayered structure with regular spacing between calcium carbonate layers resembling a zigzag pattern, and beneath this, a layer of randomly dispersed, spherical particles.

The researchers measured the dimensions of the zigzagging plates, and found the spacing between them was much wider than the more uniform plates running through the shell’s unstriped sections. They then examined the potential optical roles of both the multilayer zigzagging structure and the spherical particles.

Kolle and his colleagues used optical microscopy, spectroscopy, and diffraction microscopy to quantify the blue stripe’s light-reflection properties. They then measured the zigzagging structures and their angle with respect to the shell surface, and determined that this structure is optimized to reflect blue and green light.

The researchers also determined that the disordered arrangement of spherical particles beneath the zigzag structures serves to absorb transmitted light that otherwise could de-saturate the reflected blue color.

From these results, Kolle and his team deduced that the zigzag pattern acts as a filter, reflecting only blue light. As the rest of the incoming light passes through the shell, the underlying particles absorb this light — an effect that makes a shell’s stripes appear even more brilliantly blue.

And, for those who can never get enough detail, the news release provides a bit more than the video,

The team then sought to tackle a follow-up question: What purpose do the blue stripes serve? The limpets live either concealed at the base of kelp plants, or further up in the fronds, where they are visually exposed. Those at the base grow a thicker shell with almost no stripes, while their blue-striped counterparts live higher on the plant.

Limpets generally don’t have well-developed eyes, so the researchers reasoned that the blue stripes must not serve as a communication tool, attracting one organism to another. Rather, they think that the limpet’s stripes may be a defensive mechanism: The mollusk sits largely exposed on a frond, so a plausible defense against predators may be to appear either invisible or unappetizing. The researchers determined that the latter is more likely the case, as the limpet’s blue stripes resemble the patterning of poisonous marine snails that also happen to inhabit similar kelp beds.

Kolle says the group’s work has revealed an interesting insight into the limpet’s optical properties, which may be exploited to engineer advanced transparent optical displays. The limpet, he points out, has evolved a microstructure in its shell to satisfy an optical purpose without overly compromising the shell’s mechanical integrity. Materials scientists and engineers could take inspiration from this natural balancing act.

“It’s all about multifunctional materials in nature: Every organism — no matter if it has a shell, or skin, or feathers — interacts in various ways with the environment, and the materials with which it interfaces to the outside world frequently have to fulfill multiple functions simultaneously,” Kolle says. “[Engineers] are more and more focusing on not only optimizing just one single property in a material or device, like a brighter screen or higher pixel density, but rather on satisfying several … design and performance criteria simultaneously. We can gain inspiration and insight from nature.”

Peter Vukusic, an associate professor of physics at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, says the researchers “have done an exquisite job” in uncovering the optical mechanism behind the limpet’s conspicuous appearance.

“By using multiple and complementary analysis techniques they have elucidated, in glorious detail, the many structural and physiological factors that have given rise to the optical signature of this highly evolved system,” says Vukusic, who was not involved in the study. “The animal’s complex morphology is highly interesting for photonics scientists and technologists interested in manipulating light and creating specialized appearances.”

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

A highly conspicuous mineralized composite photonic architecture in the translucent shell of the blue-rayed limpet by Ling Li, Stefan Kolle, James C. Weaver, Christine Ortiz, Joanna Aizenberg & Mathias Kolle. Nature Communications 6, Article number: 6322 doi:10.1038/ncomms7322 Published 26 February 2015

This article is open access.

Nanomaterials, the European Commission, and functionality

A Feb. 17, 2015 news item on Nanowerk features a special thematic issue of Science for Environment Policy, a free news and information service published by the European
Commission’s Directorate-General Environment, which provides the latest environmental policy-relevant research findings (Note: A link has been removed),

Nanomaterials – at a scale of one thousand times smaller than a millimetre – offer the promise of radical technological development. Many of these will improve our quality of life, and develop our economies, but all will be measured against the overarching principle that we do not make some error, and harm ourselves and our environment by exposure to new forms of hazard. This Thematic Issue (“Nanomaterials’ functionality”; free pdf download) explores recent developments in nanomaterials research, and possibilities for safe, practical and resource-efficient applications.

You can find Nanomaterials’ functionality thematic issue here; the issue includes.

Several articles in this Thematic Issue illustrate how nanotechnology is likely to further revolutionise that arena, for example in capturing sunlight and turning it into usable electrical energy. The article ‘Solar cell efficiency boosted with pine tree-like nanotube needle’, describes how light collected from the sun can be bounced around many times inside a nanostructure to improve the chance of it exciting electrons, and ‘Nanotechnology cuts costs and improves efficiency of photovoltaic cells’ shows how electrons that are released can be captured by the large surface area of ‘nano-tree like’ anodes. Together these ensure that more of the sunlight is transformed to captured electrons and electrical power. The article ‘New energy-efficient manufacture of perovskite solar cells’ goes further, and suggests that the existing titanium dioxide that is currently used in solar cells could be replaced by perovskites, yielding quite dramatic improvements in energy conversion, at low device fabrication costs. …

The article ‘New quantum dot process could lead to super-efficient light-producing technology’ describes how anisotropic (elongated, non-spherical) indium-gallenium nitride quantum dots, or proximity to an anisotropic surface, can lead quantum dots to emit polarised light, potentially enabling 3D television screens, optical computers and other applications, at much lower cost. ‘The potential of new building block-like nanomaterials: van der Waals heterostructures’ and ‘Graphene’s health effects summarised in new guide’ touch on the possibility of engineering ‘building block-crystals’ by arranging different 2D nanostructures such as graphene into low dimension crystals, which allows us, for example, to lower the loss of energy in transmitting electricity. There are also quite novel directions underpinning ‘green nanochemistry’ — illustrated by the potential of silk-based electron-beam resists (in the article ‘Making nano-scale manufacturing eco-friendly with silk’) — to be eco-friendly, and have new functionalities.

… [p. 3 PDF]

In addition to highlighting various research areas by mentioning articles included the issue, the editorial makes its case for commercializing nanomaterials and for the European establishment’s precautionary approach to doing so,

European institutions and organisations have been at the forefront of efforts to ensure safe and practical implementation of nanotechnology. Significant efforts have been made to address knowledge gaps through research, the financing of responsible innovation, and the upgrading of the regulatory framework to render it capable of addressing the new challenges. There are solid reasons for institutional attention to the issues. Succinctly put, the passing around and modification of natural nanoparticles and macromolecules (for example, proteins) within our bodies is the foundation of much of life. In doing so we regulate and send signals between cells and organs. It is therefore appropriate that questions should be asked about engineered nanoparticles and how they interact with us, and whether they could lead to unforeseen hazards. Those are substantive issues, and answering them well will support the creative drive towards real innovation for many decades to come, and honour our commitments to future generations. [p. 4 PDF]

This special issue provide links for more information and citations for the research papers the articles are based on.

A bio-inspired robotic sock from Singapore’s National University

Should you ever be confined to a bed over a long period of time or find yourself unable to move your legs at will, this robotic sock could help you avoid blood clots according to a Feb. 10, 2015 National University of Singapore news release (also on EurekAlert but dated Feb. 13, 2015),

Patients who are bedridden or unable to move their legs are often at risk of developing Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT), a potentially life-threatening condition caused by blood clots forming along the lower extremity veins of the legs. A team of researchers from the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine and Faculty of Engineering has invented a novel sock that can help prevent DVT and improve survival rates of patients.

Equipped with soft actuators that mimic the tentacle movements of corals, the robotic sock emulates natural lower leg muscle contractions in the wearer’s leg, thereby promoting blood circulation throughout the wearer’s body. In addition, the novel device can potentially optimise therapy sessions and enable the patient’s lower leg movements to be monitored to improve therapy outcomes.

The invention is created by Assistant Professor Lim Jeong Hoon from the NUS Department of Medicine, as well as Assistant Professor Raye Yeow Chen Hua and first-year PhD candidate Mr Low Fanzhe of the NUS Department of Biomedical Engineering.

The news release goes on to contrast this new technique with the pharmacological and other methods currently in use,

Current approaches to prevent DVT include pharmacological methods which involve using anti-coagulation drugs to prevent blood from clotting, and mechanical methods that involve the use of compressive stimulations to assist blood flow.

While pharmacological methods are competent in preventing DVT, there is a primary detrimental side effect – there is higher risk of excessive bleeding which can lead to death, especially for patients who suffered hemorrhagic stroke. On the other hand, current mechanical methods such as the use of compression stockings have not demonstrated significant reduction in DVT risk.

In the course of exploring an effective solution that can prevent DVT, Asst Prof Lim, who is a rehabilitation clinician, was inspired by the natural role of the human ankle muscles in facilitating venous blood flow back to the heart. He worked with Asst Prof Yeow and Mr Low to derive a method that can perform this function for patients who are bedridden or unable to move their legs.

The team turned to nature for inspiration to develop a device that is akin to human ankle movements. They found similarities in the elegant structural design of the coral tentacle, which can extend to grab food and contract to bring the food closer for consumption, and invented soft actuators that mimic this “push and pull” mechanism.

By integrating the actuators with a sock and the use of a programmable pneumatic pump-valve control system, the invention is able to create the desired robot-assisted ankle joint motions to facilitate blood flow in the leg.

Explaining the choice of materials, Mr Low said, “We chose to use only soft components and actuators to increase patient comfort during use, hence minimising the risk of injury from excessive mechanical forces. Compression stockings are currently used in the hospital wards, so it makes sense to use a similar sock-based approach to provide comfort and minimise bulk on the ankle and foot.”

The sock complements conventional ankle therapy exercises that therapists perform on patients, thereby optimising therapy time and productivity. In addition, the sock can be worn for prolonged durations to provide robot-assisted therapy, on top of the therapist-assisted sessions. The sock is also embedded with sensors to track the ankle joint angle, allowing the patient’s ankle motion to be monitored for better treatment.

Said Asst Prof Yeow, “Given its compact size, modular design and ease of use, the soft robotic sock can be adopted in hospital wards and rehabilitation centres for on-bed applications to prevent DVT among stroke patients or even at home for bedridden patients. By reducing the risk of DVT using this device, we hope to improve survival rates of these patients.”

The team does not seem to have published any papers about this work although there are plans for clinical trials and commercialization (from the news release),

To further investigate the effectiveness of the robotic sock, Asst Prof Lim, Asst Prof Yeow and Mr Low will be conducting pilot clinical trials with about 30 patients at the National University Hospital over six months, starting March 2015. They hope that the pilot clinical trials will help them to obtain patient and clinical feedback to further improve the design and capabilities of the device.

The team intends to conduct trials across different local hospitals for better evaluation, and they also hope to commercialise the device in future.

The researchers have provided an image of the sock on a ‘patient’,

 Caption: NUS researchers (from right to left) Assistant Professor Raye Yeow, Mr Low Fanzhe and Dr Liu Yuchun demonstrating the novel bio-inspired robotic sock. Credit: National University of Singapore

Caption: NUS researchers (from right to left) Assistant Professor Raye Yeow, Mr Low Fanzhe and Dr Liu Yuchun demonstrating the novel bio-inspired robotic sock.
Credit: National University of Singapore