Category Archives: biomimcry

Beautiful solar cells based on insect eyes

What a gorgeous image!

The compound eye of a fly inspired Stanford researchers to create a compound solar cell consisting of perovskite microcells encapsulated in a hexagon-shaped scaffold. (Image credit: Thomas Shahan/Creative Commons)

An August 31, 2017 news item on Nanowerk describes research into solar cells being performed at Stanford University (Note: A link has been removed),

Packing tiny solar cells together, like micro-lenses in the compound eye of an insect, could pave the way to a new generation of advanced photovoltaics, say Stanford University scientists.

In a new study, the Stanford team used the insect-inspired design to protect a fragile photovoltaic material called perovskite from deteriorating when exposed to heat, moisture or mechanical stress. The results are published in the journal Energy & Environmental Science (“Scaffold-reinforced perovskite compound solar cells”).

An August 31, 2017 Stanford University news release (also on EurekAlert) by Mark Schwartz, which originated the news item,

“Perovskites are promising, low-cost materials that convert sunlight to electricity as efficiently as conventional solar cells made of silicon,” said Reinhold Dauskardt, a professor of materials science and engineering and senior author of the study. “The problem is that perovskites are extremely unstable and mechanically fragile. They would barely survive the manufacturing process, let alone be durable long term in the environment.”

Most solar devices, like rooftop panels, use a flat, or planar, design. But that approach doesn’t work well with perovskite solar cells.

“Perovskites are the most fragile materials ever tested in the history of our lab,” said graduate student Nicholas Rolston, a co-lead author of the E&ES study. “This fragility is related to the brittle, salt-like crystal structure of perovskite, which has mechanical properties similar to table salt.”

Eye of the fly

To address the durability challenge, the Stanford team turned to nature.

“We were inspired by the compound eye of the fly, which consists of hundreds of tiny segmented eyes,” Dauskardt explained. “It has a beautiful honeycomb shape with built-in redundancy: If you lose one segment, hundreds of others will operate. Each segment is very fragile, but it’s shielded by a scaffold wall around it.”

Scaffolds in a compound solar cell filled with perovskite after fracture testing.

Scaffolds in a compound solar cell filled with perovskite after fracture testing. (Image credit: Dauskardt Lab/Stanford University)

Using the compound eye as a model, the researchers created a compound solar cell consisting of a vast honeycomb of perovskite microcells, each encapsulated in a hexagon-shaped scaffold just 0.02 inches (500 microns) wide.

“The scaffold is made of an inexpensive epoxy resin widely used in the microelectronics industry,” Rolston said. “It’s resilient to mechanical stresses and thus far more resistant to fracture.”

Tests conducted during the study revealed that the scaffolding had little effect on how efficiently perovskite converted light into electricity.

“We got nearly the same power-conversion efficiencies out of each little perovskite cell that we would get from a planar solar cell,” Dauskardt said. “So we achieved a huge increase in fracture resistance with no penalty for efficiency.”


But could the new device withstand the kind of heat and humidity that conventional rooftop solar panels endure?

To find out, the researchers exposed encapsulated perovskite cells to temperatures of 185 F (85 C) and 85 percent relative humidity for six weeks. Despite these extreme conditions, the cells continued to generate electricity at relatively high rates of efficiency.

Dauskardt and his colleagues have filed a provisional patent for the new technology. To improve efficiency, they are studying new ways to scatter light from the scaffold into the perovskite core of each cell.

“We are very excited about these results,” he said. “It’s a new way of thinking about designing solar cells. These scaffold cells also look really cool, so there are some interesting aesthetic possibilities for real-world applications.”

Researchers have also made this image available,

Caption: A compound solar cell illuminated from a light source below. Hexagonal scaffolds are visible in the regions coated by a silver electrode. The new solar cell design could help scientists overcome a major roadblock to the development of perovskite photovoltaics. Credit: Dauskardt Lab/Stanford University

Not quite as weirdly beautiful as the insect eyes.

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

Scaffold-reinforced perovskite compound solar cells by Brian L. Watson, Nicholas Rolston, Adam D. Printz, and Reinhold H. Dauskardt. Energy & Environmental Science 2017 DOI: 10.1039/C7EE02185B first published on 23 Aug 2017

This paper is behind a paywall.

Carbon nanotubes for water desalination

In discussions about water desalination and carbon nanomaterials,  it’s graphene that’s usually mentioned these days. By contrast, scientists from the US Department of Energy’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) have turned to carbon nanotubes,

There are two news items about the work at LLNL on ScienceDaily, this first one originated by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) offers a succinct summary of the work (from an August 24, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily,

At just the right size, carbon nanotubes can filter water with better efficiency than biological proteins, a new study reveals. The results could pave the way to new water filtration systems, at a time when demands for fresh water pose a global threat to sustainable development.

A class of biological proteins, called aquaporins, is able to effectively filter water, yet scientists have not been able to manufacture scalable systems that mimic this ability. Aquaporins usually exhibit channels for filtering water molecules at a narrow width of 0.3 nanometers, which forces the water molecules into a single-file chain.

Here, Ramya H. Tunuguntla and colleagues experimented with nanotubes of different widths to see which ones are best for filtering water. Intriguingly, they found that carbon nanotubes with a width of 0.8 nanometers outperformed aquaporins in filtering efficiency by a factor of six.

These narrow carbon nanotube porins (nCNTPs) were still slim enough to force the water molecules into a single-file chain. The researchers attribute the differences between aquaporins and nCNTPS to differences in hydrogen bonding — whereas pore-lining residues in aquaporins can donate or accept H bonds to incoming water molecules, the walls of CNTPs cannot form H bonds, permitting unimpeded water flow.

The nCNTPs in this study maintained permeability exceeding that of typical saltwater, only diminishing at very high salt concentrations. Lastly, the team found that by changing the charges at the mouth of the nanotube, they can alter the ion selectivity. This advancement is highlighted in a Perspective [in Science magazine] by Zuzanna Siwy and Francesco Fornasiero.

The second Aug. 24, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily offers a more technical  perspective,

Lawrence Livermore scientists, in collaboration with researchers at Northeastern University, have developed carbon nanotube pores that can exclude salt from seawater. The team also found that water permeability in carbon nanotubes (CNTs) with diameters smaller than a nanometer (0.8 nm) exceeds that of wider carbon nanotubes by an order of magnitude.

The nanotubes, hollow structures made of carbon atoms in a unique arrangement, are more than 50,000 times thinner than a human hair. The super smooth inner surface of the nanotube is responsible for their remarkably high water permeability, while the tiny pore size blocks larger salt ions.

There’s a rather lovely illustration for this work,

An artist’s depiction of the promise of carbon nanotube porins for desalination. The image depicts a stylized carbon nanotube pipe that delivers clean desalinated water from the ocean to a kitchen tap. Image by Ryan Chen/LLNL

An Aug. 24, 2017 LLNL news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the second news item, proceeds

Increasing demands for fresh water pose a global threat to sustainable development, resulting in water scarcity for 4 billion people. Current water purification technologies can benefit from the development of membranes with specialized pores that mimic highly efficient and water selective biological proteins.

“We found that carbon nanotubes with diameters smaller than a nanometer bear a key structural feature that enables enhanced transport. The narrow hydrophobic channel forces water to translocate in a single-file arrangement, a phenomenon similar to that found in the most efficient biological water transporters,” said Ramya Tunuguntla, an LLNL postdoctoral researcher and co-author of the manuscript appearing in the Aug. 24 [2017]edition of Science.

Computer simulations and experimental studies of water transport through CNTs with diameters larger than 1 nm showed enhanced water flow, but did not match the transport efficiency of biological proteins and did not separate salt efficiently, especially at higher salinities. The key breakthrough achieved by the LLNL team was to use smaller-diameter nanotubes that delivered the required boost in performance.

“These studies revealed the details of the water transport mechanism and showed that rational manipulation of these parameters can enhance pore efficiency,” said Meni Wanunu, a physics professor at Northeastern University and co-author on the study.

“Carbon nanotubes are a unique platform for studying molecular transport and nanofluidics,” said Alex Noy, LLNL principal investigator on the CNT project and a senior author on the paper. “Their sub-nanometer size, atomically smooth surfaces and similarity to cellular water transport channels make them exceptionally suited for this purpose, and it is very exciting to make a synthetic water channel that performs better than nature’s own.”

This discovery by the LLNL scientists and their colleagues has clear implications for the next generation of water purification technologies and will spur a renewed interest in development of the next generation of high-flux membranes.

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

Enhanced water permeability and tunable ion selectivity in subnanometer carbon nanotube porins by Ramya H. Tunuguntla, Robert Y. Henley, Yun-Chiao Yao, Tuan Anh Pham, Meni Wanunu, Aleksandr Noy. Science 25 Aug 2017: Vol. 357, Issue 6353, pp. 792-796 DOI: 10.1126/science.aan2438

This paper is behind a paywall.

And, Northeastern University issued an August 25, 2017 news release (also on EurekAlert) by Allie Nicodemo,

Earth is 70 percent water, but only a tiny portion—0.007 percent—is available to drink.

As potable water sources dwindle, global population increases every year. One potential solution to quenching the planet’s thirst is through desalinization—the process of removing salt from seawater. While tantalizing, this approach has always been too expensive and energy intensive for large-scale feasibility.

Now, researchers from Northeastern have made a discovery that could change that, making desalinization easier, faster and cheaper than ever before. In a paper published Thursday [August 24, 2017] in Science, the group describes how carbon nanotubes of a certain size act as the perfect filter for salt—the smallest and most abundant water contaminant.

Filtering water is tricky because water molecules want to stick together. The “H” in H2O is hydrogen, and hydrogen bonds are strong, requiring a lot of energy to separate. Water tends to bulk up and resist being filtered. But nanotubes do it rapidly, with ease.

A carbon nanotube is like an impossibly small rolled up sheet of paper, about a nanometer in diameter. For comparison, the diameter of a human hair is 50 to 70 micrometers—50,000 times wider. The tube’s miniscule size, exactly 0.8 nm, only allows one water molecule to pass through at a time. This single-file lineup disrupts the hydrogen bonds, so water can be pushed through the tubes at an accelerated pace, with no bulking.

“You can imagine if you’re a group of people trying to run through the hallway holding hands, it’s going to be a lot slower than running through the hallway single-file,” said co-author Meni Wanunu, associate professor of physics at Northeastern. Wanunu and post doctoral student Robert Henley collaborated with scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California to conduct the research.

Scientists led by Aleksandr Noy at Lawrence Livermore discovered last year [2016] that carbon nanotubes were an ideal channel for proton transport. For this new study, Henley brought expertise and technology from Wanunu’s Nanoscale Biophysics Lab to Noy’s lab, and together they took the research one step further.

In addition to being precisely the right size for passing single water molecules, carbon nanotubes have a negative electric charge. This causes them to reject anything with the same charge, like the negative ions in salt, as well as other unwanted particles.

“While salt has a hard time passing through because of the charge, water is a neutral molecule and passes through easily,” Wanunu said. Scientists in Noy’s lab had theorized that carbon nanotubes could be designed for specific ion selectivity, but they didn’t have a reliable system of measurement. Luckily, “That’s the bread and butter of what we do in Meni’s lab,” Henley said. “It created a nice symbiotic relationship.”

“Robert brought the cutting-edge measurement and design capabilities of Wanunu’s group to my lab, and he was indispensable in developing a new platform that we used to measure the ion selectivity of the nanotubes,” Noy said.

The result is a novel system that could have major implications for the future of water security. The study showed that carbon nanotubes are better at desalinization than any other existing method— natural or man-made.

To keep their momentum going, the two labs have partnered with a leading water purification organization based in Israel. And the group was recently awarded a National Science Foundation/Binational Science Foundation grant to conduct further studies and develop water filtration platforms based on their new method. As they continue the research, the researchers hope to start programs where students can learn the latest on water filtration technology—with the goal of increasing that 0.007 percent.

As is usual in these cases there’s a fair degree of repetition but there’s always at least one nugget of new information, in this case, a link to Israel. As I noted many times, the Middle East is experiencing serious water issues. My most recent ‘water and the Middle East’ piece is an August 21, 2017 post about rainmaking at the Masdar Institute in United Arab Emirates. Approximately 50% of the way down the posting, I mention Israel and Palestine’s conflict over water.

Dr. Wei Lu and bio-inspired ‘memristor’ chips

It’s been a while since I’ve featured Dr. Wei Lu’s work here. This April  15, 2010 posting features Lu’s most relevant previous work.) Here’s his latest ‘memristor’ work , from a May 22, 2017 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

Inspired by how mammals see, a new “memristor” computer circuit prototype at the University of Michigan has the potential to process complex data, such as images and video orders of magnitude, faster and with much less power than today’s most advanced systems.

Faster image processing could have big implications for autonomous systems such as self-driving cars, says Wei Lu, U-M professor of electrical engineering and computer science. Lu is lead author of a paper on the work published in the current issue of Nature Nanotechnology (“Sparse coding with memristor networks”).

Lu’s next-generation computer components use pattern recognition to shortcut the energy-intensive process conventional systems use to dissect images. In this new work, he and his colleagues demonstrate an algorithm that relies on a technique called “sparse coding” to coax their 32-by-32 array of memristors to efficiently analyze and recreate several photos.

A May 22, 2017 University of Michigan news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more information about memristors and about the research,

Memristors are electrical resistors with memory—advanced electronic devices that regulate current based on the history of the voltages applied to them. They can store and process data simultaneously, which makes them a lot more efficient than traditional systems. In a conventional computer, logic and memory functions are located at different parts of the circuit.

“The tasks we ask of today’s computers have grown in complexity,” Lu said. “In this ‘big data’ era, computers require costly, constant and slow communications between their processor and memory to retrieve large amounts data. This makes them large, expensive and power-hungry.”

But like neural networks in a biological brain, networks of memristors can perform many operations at the same time, without having to move data around. As a result, they could enable new platforms that process a vast number of signals in parallel and are capable of advanced machine learning. Memristors are good candidates for deep neural networks, a branch of machine learning, which trains computers to execute processes without being explicitly programmed to do so.

“We need our next-generation electronics to be able to quickly process complex data in a dynamic environment. You can’t just write a program to do that. Sometimes you don’t even have a pre-defined task,” Lu said. “To make our systems smarter, we need to find ways for them to process a lot of data more efficiently. Our approach to accomplish that is inspired by neuroscience.”

A mammal’s brain is able to generate sweeping, split-second impressions of what the eyes take in. One reason is because they can quickly recognize different arrangements of shapes. Humans do this using only a limited number of neurons that become active, Lu says. Both neuroscientists and computer scientists call the process “sparse coding.”

“When we take a look at a chair we will recognize it because its characteristics correspond to our stored mental picture of a chair,” Lu said. “Although not all chairs are the same and some may differ from a mental prototype that serves as a standard, each chair retains some of the key characteristics necessary for easy recognition. Basically, the object is correctly recognized the moment it is properly classified—when ‘stored’ in the appropriate category in our heads.”

Image of a memristor chip Image of a memristor chip Similarly, Lu’s electronic system is designed to detect the patterns very efficiently—and to use as few features as possible to describe the original input.

In our brains, different neurons recognize different patterns, Lu says.

“When we see an image, the neurons that recognize it will become more active,” he said. “The neurons will also compete with each other to naturally create an efficient representation. We’re implementing this approach in our electronic system.”

The researchers trained their system to learn a “dictionary” of images. Trained on a set of grayscale image patterns, their memristor network was able to reconstruct images of famous paintings and photos and other test patterns.

If their system can be scaled up, they expect to be able to process and analyze video in real time in a compact system that can be directly integrated with sensors or cameras.

The project is titled “Sparse Adaptive Local Learning for Sensing and Analytics.” Other collaborators are Zhengya Zhang and Michael Flynn of the U-M Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Garrett Kenyon of the Los Alamos National Lab and Christof Teuscher of Portland State University.

The work is part of a $6.9 million Unconventional Processing of Signals for Intelligent Data Exploitation project that aims to build a computer chip based on self-organizing, adaptive neural networks. It is funded by the [US] Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency [DARPA].

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

Sparse coding with memristor networks by Patrick M. Sheridan, Fuxi Cai, Chao Du, Wen Ma, Zhengya Zhang, & Wei D. Lu. Nature Nanotechnology (2017) doi:10.1038/nnano.2017.83 Published online 22 May 2017

This paper is behind a paywall.

For the interested, there are a number of postings featuring memristors here (just use ‘memristor’ as your search term in the blog search engine). You might also want to check out ‘neuromorphic engineeering’ and ‘neuromorphic computing’ and ‘artificial brain’.

A nano fabrication technique used to create next generation heart valve

I am going to have take the researchers’ word that these somehow lead to healthy heart valve tissue,

In rotary jet spinning technology, a rotating nozzle extrudes a solution of extracellular matrix (ECM) into nanofibers that wrap themselves around heart valve-shaped mandrels. By using a series of mandrels with different sizes, the manufacturing process becomes fully scalable and is able to provide JetValves for all age groups and heart sizes. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

From a May 18, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily,

The human heart beats approximately 35 million times every year, effectively pumping blood into the circulation via four different heart valves. Unfortunately, in over four million people each year, these delicate tissues malfunction due to birth defects, age-related deteriorations, and infections, causing cardiac valve disease.

Today, clinicians use either artificial prostheses or fixed animal and cadaver-sourced tissues to replace defective valves. While these prostheses can restore the function of the heart for a while, they are associated with adverse comorbidity and wear down and need to be replaced during invasive and expensive surgeries. Moreover, in children, implanted heart valve prostheses need to be replaced even more often as they cannot grow with the child.

A team lead by Kevin Kit Parker, Ph.D. at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering recently developed a nanofiber fabrication technique to rapidly manufacture heart valves with regenerative and growth potential. In a paper published in Biomaterials, Andrew Capulli, Ph.D. and colleagues fabricated a valve-shaped nanofiber network that mimics the mechanical and chemical properties of the native valve extracellular matrix (ECM). To achieve this, the team used the Parker lab’s proprietary rotary jet spinning technology — in which a rotating nozzle extrudes an ECM solution into nanofibers that wrap themselves around heart valve-shaped mandrels. “Our setup is like a very fast cotton candy machine that can spin a range of synthetic and natural occurring materials. In this study, we used a combination of synthetic polymers and ECM proteins to fabricate biocompatible JetValves that are hemodynamically competent upon implantation and support cell migration and re-population in vitro. Importantly, we can make human-sized JetValves in minutes — much faster than possible for other regenerative prostheses,” said Parker.

A May 18,2017 Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on the theme of Jetvalves,

To further develop and test the clinical potential of JetValves, Parker’s team collaborated with the translational team of Simon P. Hoerstrup, M.D., Ph.D., at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, which is a partner institution with the Wyss Institute. As a leader in regenerative heart prostheses, Hoerstrup and his team in Zurich have previously developed regenerative, tissue-engineered heart valves to replace mechanical and fixed-tissue heart valves. In Hoerstrup’s approach, human cells directly deposit a regenerative layer of complex ECM on biodegradable scaffolds shaped as heart valves and vessels. The living cells are then eliminated from the scaffolds resulting in an “off-the-shelf” human matrix-based prostheses ready for implantation.

In the paper, the cross-disciplinary team successfully implanted JetValves in sheep using a minimally invasive technique and demonstrated that the valves functioned properly in the circulation and regenerated new tissue. “In our previous studies, the cell-derived ECM-coated scaffolds could recruit cells from the receiving animal’s heart and support cell proliferation, matrix remodeling, tissue regeneration, and even animal growth. While these valves are safe and effective, their manufacturing remains complex and expensive as human cells must be cultured for a long time under heavily regulated conditions. The JetValve’s much faster manufacturing process can be a game-changer in this respect. If we can replicate these results in humans, this technology could have invaluable benefits in minimizing the number of pediatric re-operations,” said Hoerstrup.

In support of these translational efforts, the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering and the University of Zurich announced today a cross-institutional team effort to generate a functional heart valve replacement with the capacity for repair, regeneration, and growth. The team is also working towards a GMP-grade version of their customizable, scalable, and cost-effective manufacturing process that would enable deployment to a large patient population. In addition, the new heart valve would be compatible with minimally invasive procedures to serve both pediatric and adult patients.

The project will be led jointly by Parker and Hoerstrup. Parker is a Core Faculty member of the Wyss Institute and the Tarr Family Professor of Bioengineering and Applied Physics at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). Hoerstrup is Chair and Director of the University of Zurich’s Institute for Regenerative Medicine (IREM), Co-Director of the recently founded Wyss Translational Center Zurich and a Wyss Institute Associate Faculty member.

Since JetValves can be manufactured in all desired shapes and sizes, and take seconds to minutes to produce, the team’s goal is to provide customized, ready-to-use, regenerative heart valves much faster and at much lower cost than currently possible.

“Achieving the goal of minimally invasive, low-cost regenerating heart valves could have tremendous impact on patients’ lives across age-, social- and geographical boundaries. Once again, our collaborative team structure that combines unique and leading expertise in bioengineering, regenerative medicine, surgical innovation and business development across the Wyss Institute and our partner institutions, makes it possible for us to advance technology development in ways not possible in a conventional academic laboratory,” said Wyss Institute Founding Director Donald Ingber, M.D., Ph.D., who is also the Judah Folkman Professor of Vascular Biology at HMS and the Vascular Biology Program at Boston Children’s Hospital, as well as Professor of Bioengineering at SEAS.

This scanning electron microscopy image shows how extracellular matrix (ECM) nanofibers generated with JetValve technology are arranged in parallel networks with physical properties comparable to those found in native heart tissue. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

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

JetValve: Rapid manufacturing of biohybrid scaffolds for biomimetic heart valve replacement by Andrew K. Capulli, Maximillian Y. Emmert, Francesco S. Pasqualini, b, Debora Kehl, Etem Caliskan, Johan U. Lind, Sean P. Sheehy, Sung Jin Park, Seungkuk Ahn, Benedikt Webe, Josue A. Goss. Biomaterials Volume 133, July 2017, Pages 229–241

This paper is behind a paywall.

Material that sheds like a snake when it’s damaged

Truly water-repellent materials are on the horizon. Or, they would be if one tiny problem was solved. According to a May  3, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily, scientists may have come up with that solution,

Imagine a raincoat that heals a scratch by shedding the part of the outer layer that’s damaged. To create such a material, scientists have turned to nature for inspiration. They report in ACS’ journal Langmuir a water-repellant material that molts like a snake’s skin when damaged to reveal another hydrophobic [water-repellent] layer beneath it.

A May 3, 2017 American Chemical Society (ACS) press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

Lotus leaves, water striders and other superhydrophobic examples from nature have inspired scientists to copy their water-repelling architecture to develop new materials. Such materials are often made by coating a substrate with nanostructures, which can be shored up by adding microstructures to the mix. Superhydrophobic surfaces could be useful in a range of applications including rain gear, medical instruments and self-cleaning car windows. But most of the prototypes so far haven’t been strong enough to stand up to damage by sharp objects. To address this shortcoming, Jürgen Rühe and colleagues again found a potential solution in nature — in snake and lizard skins.

The researchers stacked three layers to create their material: a water-repellant film made with poly-1H,1H,2H,2H-perfluorodecyl acrylate (PFA) “nanograss” on the top, a water-soluble polymer in the middle and a superhydrophobic silicon nanograss film on the bottom. Nanograss consists of tiny needle-like projections sticking straight up. The team scratched the coating and submerged the material in water, which then seeped into the cut and dissolved the polymer. The top layer then peeled off like molted skin and floated away, exposing the bottom, water-repellant film. Although further work is needed to strengthen the top coating so that a scratch won’t be able to penetrate all three layers, the researchers say it offers a new approach to creating self-cleaning and water-repellant materials.

The authors acknowledge support from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) and VDI/VDE/IT GmbH through project NanoTau.

Here’s a video demonstrating the concept,

Published on May 2, 2017

Scientists turn to snakes and lizards for inspiration to create a new material that sheds its outer layer when scratched.

Finally, a link to and a citation for the paper,

Molting Materials: Restoring Superhydrophobicity after Severe Damage via Snakeskin-like Shedding by Roland Hönes, Vitaliy Kondrashov, and Jürgen Rühe. Langmuir, Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/acs.langmuir.7b00814 Publication Date (Web): April 14, 2017

Copyright © 2017 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Locusts inspire new aerosol-based nanoparticle drug delivery system

Getting medication directly to the brain is a worldwide medical research goal and it seems that a team of scientists at the Washington University at St. Louis (WUSTL) has taken a step forward to accomplishing the goal. From an April 12, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily,

Delivering life-saving drugs directly to the brain in a safe and effective way is a challenge for medical providers. One key reason: the blood-brain barrier, which protects the brain from tissue-specific drug delivery. Methods such as an injection or a pill aren’t as precise or immediate as doctors might prefer, and ensuring delivery right to the brain often requires invasive, risky techniques.

A team of engineers from Washington University in St. Louis has developed a new nanoparticle generation-delivery method that could someday vastly improve drug delivery to the brain, making it as simple as a sniff.

“This would be a nanoparticle nasal spray, and the delivery system could allow a therapeutic dose of medicine to reach the brain within 30 minutes to one hour,” said Ramesh Raliya, research scientist at the School of Engineering & Applied Science.

Caption: Engineers at Washington University have discovered a new technique that could change drug delivery to the brain. They were able to apply a nanoparticle aerosol spray to the antenna of locusts, then track the nanoparticles as they traveled through the olfactory nerves, crossed the blood-brain barrier and accumulated in the brain. This new, non-invasive approach could someday make drug delivery as simple as a sniff for patients with brain injuries or tumors.

Credit: Washington University in St. Louis

An April 12, 2017 WUSTL news release by Erika Ebsworth-Goold (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the work in more detail,

“The blood-brain barrier protects the brain from foreign substances in the blood that may injure the brain,” Raliya said. “But when we need to deliver something there, getting through that barrier is difficult and invasive. Our non-invasive technique can deliver drugs via nanoparticles, so there’s less risk and better response times.”

The novel approach is based on aerosol science and engineering principles that allow the generation of monodisperse nanoparticles, which can deposit on upper regions of the nasal cavity via diffusion. Working with Assistant Vice Chancellor Pratim Biswas, chair of the Department of Energy, Environmental & Chemical Engineering and the Lucy & Stanley Lopata Professor, Raliya developed an aerosol consisting of gold nanoparticles of controlled size, shape and surface charge. The nanoparticles were tagged with fluorescent markers, allowing the researchers to track their movement.

Next, Raliya and biomedical engineering postdoctoral fellow Debajit Saha exposed locusts’ antennae to the aerosol, and observed the nanoparticles travel from the antennas up through the olfactory nerves. Due to their tiny size, the nanoparticles passed through the brain-blood barrier, reaching the brain and suffusing it in a matter of minutes.

The team tested the concept in locusts because the blood-brain barriers in the insects and humans have anatomical similarities, and the researchers consider going through the nasal regions to neural pathways as the optimal way to access the brain.

“The shortest and possibly the easiest path to the brain is through your nose,” said Barani Raman, associate professor of biomedical engineering. “Your nose, the olfactory bulb and then olfactory cortex: two relays and you’ve reached the cortex. The same is true for invertebrate olfactory circuitry, although the latter is a relatively simpler system, with supraesophageal ganglion instead of an olfactory bulb and cortex.”

To determine whether or not the foreign nanoparticles disrupted normal brain function, Saha examined the physiological response of olfactory neurons in the locusts before and after the nanoparticle delivery. Several hours after the nanoparticle uptake, no noticeable change in the electrophysiological responses was detected.

“This is only a beginning of a cool set of studies that can be performed to make nanoparticle-based drug delivery approaches more principled,” Raman said.

The next phase of research involves fusing the gold nanoparticles with various medicines, and using ultrasound to target a more precise dose to specific areas of the brain, which would be especially beneficial in brain-tumor cases.

“We want to drug target delivery within the brain using this non-invasive approach,” Raliya said.  “In the case of a brain tumor, we hope to use focused ultrasound so we can guide the particles to collect at that particular point.”

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

Non-invasive aerosol delivery and transport of gold nanoparticles to the brain by Ramesh Raliya, Debajit Saha, Tandeep S. Chadha, Baranidharan Raman, & Pratim Biswas. Scientific Reports 7, Article number: 44718 (2017) doi:10.1038/srep44718 Published online: 16 March 2017

This paper is open access.

I featured another team working on delivering drugs directly to the brain via the olfactory system, except their nanoparticles were gelatin and they were testing stroke medication on rats, in my Sept. 24, 2014 posting.

Energy storage inspired by a fern’s fractal patterns

Australian researchers have come up with a bio-inspired approach to making solar energy storage more viable according to a March 31, 2017 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

Inspired by an American fern, researchers have developed a groundbreaking prototype that could be the answer to the storage challenge still holding solar back as a total energy solution (Science Express, “Bioinspired fractal electrodes for solar energy storages”).

The breakthrough electrode prototype (right) can be combined with a solar cell (left) for on-chip energy harvesting and storage. (Image: RMIT University)

A March 31, 2017 RMIT University press release, which originated the news item on Nanowerk, provides more detail (Note: A link has been removed),

The new type of electrode created by RMIT University researchers could boost the capacity of existing integrable storage technologies by 3000 per cent.

But the graphene-based prototype also opens a new path to the development of flexible thin film all-in-one solar capture and storage, bringing us one step closer to self-powering smart phones, laptops, cars and buildings.

The new electrode is designed to work with supercapacitors, which can charge and discharge power much faster than conventional batteries. Supercapacitors have been combined with solar, but their wider use as a storage solution is restricted because of their limited capacity.

RMIT’s Professor Min Gu said the new design drew on nature’s own genius solution to the challenge of filling a space in the most efficient way possible – through intricate self-repeating patterns known as “fractals”.

“The leaves of the western swordfern are densely crammed with veins, making them extremely efficient for storing energy and transporting water around the plant,” said Gu, Leader of the Laboratory of Artificial Intelligence Nanophotonics and Associate Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research Innovation and Entrepreneurship at RMIT.

“Our electrode is based on these fractal shapes – which are self-replicating, like the mini structures within snowflakes – and we’ve used this naturally-efficient design to improve solar energy storage at a nano level.

“The immediate application is combining this electrode with supercapacitors, as our experiments have shown our prototype can radically increase their storage capacity – 30 times more than current capacity limits.

“Capacity-boosted supercapacitors would offer both long-term reliability and quick-burst energy release – for when someone wants to use solar energy on a cloudy day for example – making them ideal alternatives for solar power storage.”

Combined with supercapacitors, the fractal-enabled laser-reduced graphene electrodes can hold the stored charge for longer, with minimal leakage.

The fractal design reflected the self-repeating shape of the veins of the western swordfern, Polystichum munitum, native to western North America.

Lead author, PhD researcher Litty Thekkekara, said because the prototype was based on flexible thin film technology, its potential applications were countless.

“The most exciting possibility is using this electrode with a solar cell, to provide a total on-chip energy harvesting and storage solution,” Thekkekara said.

“We can do that now with existing solar cells but these are bulky and rigid. The real future lies in integrating the prototype with flexible thin film solar – technology that is still in its infancy.

“Flexible thin film solar could be used almost anywhere you can imagine, from building windows to car panels, smart phones to smart watches. We would no longer need batteries to charge our phones or charging stations for our hybrid cars.

“With this flexible electrode prototype we’ve solved the storage part of the challenge, as well as shown how they can work with solar cells without affecting performance. Now the focus needs to be on flexible solar energy, so we can work towards achieving our vision of fully solar-reliant, self-powering electronics.”

The repeating pattern of veins in the leaves of the western swordfern, as seen here magnified 400 times, served as the inspiration for the new high-density electrode(Credit: RMIT University)

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

Bioinspired fractal electrodes for solar energy storages by Litty V. Thekkekara & Min Gu. Scientific Reports 7, Article number: 45585 (2017) doi:10.1038/srep45585 Published online: 31 March 2017

This is an open access paper.

Fractal imagery (from nature or from art or from mathematics) soothes

Jackson Pollock’s work is often cited when fractal art is discussed. I think it’s largely because he likely produced the art without knowing about the concept.

No. 5, 1948 (Jackson Pollock, downloaded from Wikipedia essay about No. 5, 1948)

Richard Taylor, a professor of physics at the University of Oregon, provides more information about how fractals affect us and how this is relevant to his work with retinal implants in a March 30, 2017 essay for The Conversation (h/t Mar. 31, 2017 news item on, Note: Links have been removed),

Humans are visual creatures. Objects we call “beautiful” or “aesthetic” are a crucial part of our humanity. Even the oldest known examples of rock and cave art served aesthetic rather than utilitarian roles. Although aesthetics is often regarded as an ill-defined vague quality, research groups like mine are using sophisticated techniques to quantify it – and its impact on the observer.

We’re finding that aesthetic images can induce staggering changes to the body, including radical reductions in the observer’s stress levels. Job stress alone is estimated to cost American businesses many billions of dollars annually, so studying aesthetics holds a huge potential benefit to society.

Researchers are untangling just what makes particular works of art or natural scenes visually appealing and stress-relieving – and one crucial factor is the presence of the repetitive patterns called fractals.

When it comes to aesthetics, who better to study than famous artists? They are, after all, the visual experts. My research group took this approach with Jackson Pollock, who rose to the peak of modern art in the late 1940s by pouring paint directly from a can onto horizontal canvases laid across his studio floor. Although battles raged among Pollock scholars regarding the meaning of his splattered patterns, many agreed they had an organic, natural feel to them.

My scientific curiosity was stirred when I learned that many of nature’s objects are fractal, featuring patterns that repeat at increasingly fine magnifications. For example, think of a tree. First you see the big branches growing out of the trunk. Then you see smaller versions growing out of each big branch. As you keep zooming in, finer and finer branches appear, all the way down to the smallest twigs. Other examples of nature’s fractals include clouds, rivers, coastlines and mountains.

In 1999, my group used computer pattern analysis techniques to show that Pollock’s paintings are as fractal as patterns found in natural scenery. Since then, more than 10 different groups have performed various forms of fractal analysis on his paintings. Pollock’s ability to express nature’s fractal aesthetics helps explain the enduring popularity of his work.

The impact of nature’s aesthetics is surprisingly powerful. In the 1980s, architects found that patients recovered more quickly from surgery when given hospital rooms with windows looking out on nature. Other studies since then have demonstrated that just looking at pictures of natural scenes can change the way a person’s autonomic nervous system responds to stress.

Are fractals the secret to some soothing natural scenes? Ronan, CC BY-NC-ND

For me, this raises the same question I’d asked of Pollock: Are fractals responsible? Collaborating with psychologists and neuroscientists, we measured people’s responses to fractals found in nature (using photos of natural scenes), art (Pollock’s paintings) and mathematics (computer generated images) and discovered a universal effect we labeled “fractal fluency.”

Through exposure to nature’s fractal scenery, people’s visual systems have adapted to efficiently process fractals with ease. We found that this adaptation occurs at many stages of the visual system, from the way our eyes move to which regions of the brain get activated. This fluency puts us in a comfort zone and so we enjoy looking at fractals. Crucially, we used EEG to record the brain’s electrical activity and skin conductance techniques to show that this aesthetic experience is accompanied by stress reduction of 60 percent – a surprisingly large effect for a nonmedicinal treatment. This physiological change even accelerates post-surgical recovery rates.

Pollock’s motivation for continually increasing the complexity of his fractal patterns became apparent recently when I studied the fractal properties of Rorschach inkblots. These abstract blots are famous because people see imaginary forms (figures and animals) in them. I explained this process in terms of the fractal fluency effect, which enhances people’s pattern recognition processes. The low complexity fractal inkblots made this process trigger-happy, fooling observers into seeing images that aren’t there.

Pollock disliked the idea that viewers of his paintings were distracted by such imaginary figures, which he called “extra cargo.” He intuitively increased the complexity of his works to prevent this phenomenon.

Pollock’s abstract expressionist colleague, Willem De Kooning, also painted fractals. When he was diagnosed with dementia, some art scholars called for his retirement amid concerns that that it would reduce the nurture component of his work. Yet, although they predicted a deterioration in his paintings, his later works conveyed a peacefulness missing from his earlier pieces. Recently, the fractal complexity of his paintings was shown to drop steadily as he slipped into dementia. The study focused on seven artists with different neurological conditions and highlighted the potential of using art works as a new tool for studying these diseases. To me, the most inspiring message is that, when fighting these diseases, artists can still create beautiful artworks.

Recognizing how looking at fractals reduces stress means it’s possible to create retinal implants that mimic the mechanism. Nautilus image via

My main research focuses on developing retinal implants to restore vision to victims of retinal diseases. At first glance, this goal seems a long way from Pollock’s art. Yet, it was his work that gave me the first clue to fractal fluency and the role nature’s fractals can play in keeping people’s stress levels in check. To make sure my bio-inspired implants induce the same stress reduction when looking at nature’s fractals as normal eyes do, they closely mimic the retina’s design.

When I started my Pollock research, I never imagined it would inform artificial eye designs. This, though, is the power of interdisciplinary endeavors – thinking “out of the box” leads to unexpected but potentially revolutionary ideas.

Fabulous essay, eh?

I have previously featured Jackson Pollock in a June 30, 2011 posting titled: Jackson Pollock’s physics and and briefly mentioned him in a May 11, 2010 visual arts commentary titled: Rennie Collection’s latest: Richard Jackson, Georges Seurat & Jackson Pollock, guns, the act of painting, and women (scroll down about 45% of the way).

Worm-inspired gel material and soft robots

The Nereis virens worm inspired new research out of the MIT Laboratory for Atomistic and Molecular Mechanics. Its jaw is made of soft organic material, but is as strong as harder materials such as human dentin. Photo: Alexander Semenov/Wikimedia Commons

What an amazing worm! Here’s more about robots inspired by the Nereis virens worm in a March 20, 2017 news item on Nanowerk,

A new material that naturally adapts to changing environments was inspired by the strength, stability, and mechanical performance of the jaw of a marine worm. The protein material, which was designed and modeled by researchers from the Laboratory for Atomistic and Molecular Mechanics (LAMM) in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) [at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology {MIT}], and synthesized in collaboration with the Air Force Research Lab (AFRL) at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, expands and contracts based on changing pH levels and ion concentrations. It was developed by studying how the jaw of Nereis virens, a sand worm, forms and adapts in different environments.

The resulting pH- and ion-sensitive material is able to respond and react to its environment. Understanding this naturally-occurring process can be particularly helpful for active control of the motion or deformation of actuators for soft robotics and sensors without using external power supply or complex electronic controlling devices. It could also be used to build autonomous structures.

A March 20, 2017 MIT news release, which originated the news item, provides more detail,

“The ability of dramatically altering the material properties, by changing its hierarchical structure starting at the chemical level, offers exciting new opportunities to tune the material, and to build upon the natural material design towards new engineering applications,” wrote Markus J. Buehler, the McAfee Professor of Engineering, head of CEE, and senior author of the paper.

The research, recently published in ACS Nano, shows that depending on the ions and pH levels in the environment, the protein material expands and contracts into different geometric patterns. When the conditions change again, the material reverts back to its original shape. This makes it particularly useful for smart composite materials with tunable mechanics and self-powered roboticists that use pH value and ion condition to change the material stiffness or generate functional deformations.

Finding inspiration in the strong, stable jaw of a marine worm

In order to create bio-inspired materials that can be used for soft robotics, sensors, and other uses — such as that inspired by the Nereis — engineers and scientists at LAMM and AFRL needed to first understand how these materials form in the Nereis worm, and how they ultimately behave in various environments. This understanding involved the development of a model that encompasses all different length scales from the atomic level, and is able to predict the material behavior. This model helps to fully understand the Nereis worm and its exceptional strength.

“Working with AFRL gave us the opportunity to pair our atomistic simulations with experiments,” said CEE research scientist Francisco Martin-Martinez. AFRL experimentally synthesized a hydrogel, a gel-like material made mostly of water, which is composed of recombinant Nvjp-1 protein responsible for the structural stability and impressive mechanical performance of the Nereis jaw. The hydrogel was used to test how the protein shrinks and changes behavior based on pH and ions in the environment.

The Nereis jaw is mostly made of organic matter, meaning it is a soft protein material with a consistency similar to gelatin. In spite of this, its strength, which has been reported to have a hardness ranging between 0.4 and 0.8 gigapascals (GPa), is similar to that of harder materials like human dentin. “It’s quite remarkable that this soft protein material, with a consistency akin to Jell-O, can be as strong as calcified minerals that are found in human dentin and harder materials such as bones,” Buehler said.

At MIT, the researchers looked at the makeup of the Nereis jaw on a molecular scale to see what makes the jaw so strong and adaptive. At this scale, the metal-coordinated crosslinks, the presence of metal in its molecular structure, provide a molecular network that makes the material stronger and at the same time make the molecular bond more dynamic, and ultimately able to respond to changing conditions. At the macroscopic scale, these dynamic metal-protein bonds result in an expansion/contraction behavior.

Combining the protein structural studies from AFRL with the molecular understanding from LAMM, Buehler, Martin-Martinez, CEE Research Scientist Zhao Qin, and former PhD student Chia-Ching Chou ’15, created a multiscale model that is able to predict the mechanical behavior of materials that contain this protein in various environments. “These atomistic simulations help us to visualize the atomic arrangements and molecular conformations that underlay the mechanical performance of these materials,” Martin-Martinez said.

Specifically, using this model the research team was able to design, test, and visualize how different molecular networks change and adapt to various pH levels, taking into account the biological and mechanical properties.

By looking at the molecular and biological makeup of a the Nereis virens and using the predictive model of the mechanical behavior of the resulting protein material, the LAMM researchers were able to more fully understand the protein material at different scales and provide a comprehensive understanding of how such protein materials form and behave in differing pH settings. This understanding guides new material designs for soft robots and sensors.

Identifying the link between environmental properties and movement in the material

The predictive model explained how the pH sensitive materials change shape and behavior, which the researchers used for designing new PH-changing geometric structures. Depending on the original geometric shape tested in the protein material and the properties surrounding it, the LAMM researchers found that the material either spirals or takes a Cypraea shell-like shape when the pH levels are changed. These are only some examples of the potential that this new material could have for developing soft robots, sensors, and autonomous structures.

Using the predictive model, the research team found that the material not only changes form, but it also reverts back to its original shape when the pH levels change. At the molecular level, histidine amino acids present in the protein bind strongly to the ions in the environment. This very local chemical reaction between amino acids and metal ions has an effect in the overall conformation of the protein at a larger scale. When environmental conditions change, the histidine-metal interactions change accordingly, which affect the protein conformation and in turn the material response.

“Changing the pH or changing the ions is like flipping a switch. You switch it on or off, depending on what environment you select, and the hydrogel expands or contracts” said Martin-Martinez.

LAMM found that at the molecular level, the structure of the protein material is strengthened when the environment contains zinc ions and certain pH levels. This creates more stable metal-coordinated crosslinks in the material’s molecular structure, which makes the molecules more dynamic and flexible.

This insight into the material’s design and its flexibility is extremely useful for environments with changing pH levels. Its response of changing its figure to changing acidity levels could be used for soft robotics. “Most soft robotics require power supply to drive the motion and to be controlled by complex electronic devices. Our work toward designing of multifunctional material may provide another pathway to directly control the material property and deformation without electronic devices,” said Qin.

By studying and modeling the molecular makeup and the behavior of the primary protein responsible for the mechanical properties ideal for Nereis jaw performance, the LAMM researchers are able to link environmental properties to movement in the material and have a more comprehensive understanding of the strength of the Nereis jaw.

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

Ion Effect and Metal-Coordinated Cross-Linking for Multiscale Design of Nereis Jaw Inspired Mechanomutable Materials by Chia-Ching Chou, Francisco J. Martin-Martinez, Zhao Qin, Patrick B. Dennis, Maneesh K. Gupta, Rajesh R. Naik, and Markus J. Buehler. ACS Nano, 2017, 11 (2), pp 1858–1868 DOI: 10.1021/acsnano.6b07878 Publication Date (Web): February 6, 2017

Copyright © 2017 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.