Monthly Archives: June 2008

‘Beating and heating’ nanotechnology

hApparently they call the process for shaping metal ‘beat and heat’. I love that because it so precisely describes the process  and it has a great sound. It deserves a poem but not today.  We’ve been beating and heating for millennia and now scientists at Cornell have come up with an alternative, self-assembling metal which is also porous. There’s a detailed description of the processes involved here in Nanotechnology Now (NN) and more information in the June 27, 2008 issue of Science. The quick version: they’ve found a way to coat metal nanoparticles (2 nm in diameter, roughly) with something called a ligand. Described in my first source (NN) as an organic material, it can also be described as a biomolecule. Hmmm, this suggests some interesting questions about crossing boundaries (scientists may not view them as boundaries but a lot of regular folks do). It’s a question that Richard Jones raised in the last chapters of his book, Soft Machines, what is our relationship to nature? It’s not a new question, we’ve been asking it for millenia

Getting started on the Mysteries

I started my nanotech wiki (The Nanotech Mysteries) yesterday or rather I created the shell. And, I tried my hand at creating a cartoon character I’ve dubbed ‘onanonano’. Yes, it’s a palindrome which could have been shorter but this way it sounds like ‘banana’ and I’ve always really liked that sound. Meanwhile, I didn’t find anything especially interesting on my Bloglines nanotech search this morning so I sent out a request to interview Martha Cook Piper. She was appointed to the [Canada] National Institute of Nanotechnology board in April 2008 and I’m hoping that by this time she will have had one meeting under her belt and be able to share a little about the national scene.

Doing the impossible (superconductorwise) and self-assembling gold

They made the electrons behave. Of course, it will be written up in much loftier terms but that’s what it comes down to. (For purists who think that you can’t end a sentence in a preposition, you are wrong. One of these days I will dig up the appropriate references.) A team at the University of British Columbia (‘UBC] yes, there is Canadian nanotechnology) have found a way to manipulate electrons on ultra thin material, in this case, potassium atoms were laid over a a piece of superconductive copper oxide. (superconductive = no resistance to conducting electricity)

As to why this is good news, here’s what the lead researcher, Dr. Andrea Damascelli has to say, “The development of future electronics, such as quantum computer chips, hinges on extremely thin layers of material.”  Sounds reasonable, so what’s the problem? He goes on, “Extremely thin layers and surfaces of superconducting material take on very different properties from the rest of the material. Electrons have been observed to rearrange, making it impossible for scientists to study.” Until recently. Damascelli adds, “The new technique opens the door to systematic studies not just of high-temperature superconductors, but many other materials where surfaces and interfaces control the physical properties.” He mentions fuel cells and lossless power lines as two potential applications. The journal, Nature Physics, is publishing Damascelli and team’s paper this week. (I imagine that you won’t be able to access the article unless you have a subscription or permission to use someone else’s subscription.) For more details you will find the press release here or at here.

There is self-assembling gold according to Dr. Pulickel M. Ajayan at Rice University. His study will be published next month in Nano Letters. With the right conditions (exposure to magnets, chemicals, and light) Ajayan’s team coaxed nanorods into self-assembling as a giant structure (like a grain of rice). Go here for more details about the paper and an image of a giant gold droplet.

More on memristors and a little bit on food packaging and nano

The folks at HP Labs have figured out a  way to control memristors and the information is being published in the July issue of Nature Nanotechnology (article will be behind a paywall). Memristors first came up in May this year when scientists at HP Labs confirmed that they existed. (Take a look at my June 19 posting and May 9 postings for more about memristors.) Briefly, a memristor retains information (memory of value) about current that passes through it. They’ve now created a memristor switch (50nm x 50nm) which the can be set to ’1′ or ’0′ or something in between. That’s right it can be used in a  binary (digital) fashion or an analogue fashion. One of the potential applications (noted in the earlier postings) is for saving energy and another is a computer that learns. There’s more info. here at HP Labs.

A friend told me about a report from Friends of the Earth called ‘Out of the Laboratory and Onto Our Plates’. It’s about nanotechnology being used in food packaging and agriculture. I find their approach a bit strident especially when taking into account their acronym, foe. Still, the report itself is well written, except for the strident bits, has a substantive set of references and can be downloaded from their website. There’s also a March 2008 article  in Scientific American here which discusses the report and includes some commentary from other interested parties to provide some journalistic balance.

Canada’s published nano articles (part 3)…patents

The numbers of either articles or patents or both produced by one country or another suggest something about that country’s level of activity.  I am brutally summarizing some of M. Fatih Yegul’s data,  which will be presented at PICMET ’08 ( in South Africa in late July and published in the proceedings under the title “Nanotechnology: Canada’s Position in Scientific Publications and Patents,” notes that Canada ranks 16th (just after Austria) in one study which examined global patent databases covering a 10 year period (1994 to 2004). That study listed the US as the leader with over 6700 patents while Canada registered slightly fewer than 100.

Two studies which focus on the patents filed with the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) show Canada as ranking fifth overall. I guess a significant number of researchers don’t file their patents in the US hence the lower ranking when worldwide databases are used.  Interestingly, Canadians file more patents with the USPTO than they do with its Canadian counterpart.

There’s some information about the number of Canadian patents that get cited internationally, apparently we rank highly on that kind of an index especially with medical and biotechnology-related nanotechnology. (Aside: I love how the biotech guys are shifting their brand to nanotechnology. I’m not sure that’s going to help their problem, which is more profound than bad publicity associated with the old name.)

It’s all pretty interesting including the suggestion (based on a study that showed Canada as ranking 6th in numbers of science articles published from 1995-2005) that Canada is performing below its own average with regard to nanotechnology research.  There are no unequivocal conclusions to be had from all this data although I did get the impression that Canadians (whether you consider the level of scientific interest or government support) haven’t gotten that interested in nanotechnology yet.

Canada’s nano article numbers (part 2) plus memristor and L’Oreal updates

Now for part 2 about M. Fatih Yegul’s (he’s at the University of Waterloo) paper which is to be presented in South Africa at PICMET ’08, July 27-31 ( or go here). PICMET will publish Yegul’s study in their proceedings if you want to check out his data.)

Yegul points out that nanotechnology or nanoscience didn’t actually exist as categories until after people started publishing and applying for patents which makes searching and analyzing data a little bit of a challenge. (I was really surprised to find out that the US Patent and Trademark Office took until 2004 before establishing nanotechnology as a category.)

As per Canadian publication output, we seem to bob around in the rankings between 8th and 13th worldwide, depending on the time period being examined and what the study was measuring.  Some of the studies are expressed in whole numbers while others provide percentages. Interestingly, we seem to range from 1% to roughly 4% when the studies express results in percentages.

A few countries,  the US, China, Japan, Germany, and South Korea dominate the numbers in some more recent studies.  (The 2008 Nature Nanotechnology publication analysis aggregated the European countries’ numbers which resulted in a high ranking overall but makes the study a little hard to compare to anything else. It’s a problem that I imagine Yegul confronted any number of times while producing his paper. )

I’ll look at the patents tomorrow in part 3 (I just can’t fit it all in today).

Now a few things I’d like to clarify…I’m a bit of a dullard and didn’t realize until two days ago that I’d gotten some responses to earlier postings…I hope both individuals will accept my apologies and since those comments were made weeks ago I thought it only fair to highlight them…first from Scott Jordan at Carpe Nano and in response to some confusion about memristors on my part:

  • “Thanks for the link to my blog, Think of the memristor as being like a resistor whose value changes with the current it has experienced flowing through it, and that its value “sticks” when no current goes through (that is, power off), and that the process is reversible. That’s not quite accurate, but the sticky behavior is the important part. It’s a way of storing information, and not just with the 0-or-1 states of conventional digital memory, though that’s one possible implementation. It can store intermediate values, too. That means one memristor can store multiple bit-states… in principle, one memristor could do the job of a whole conga-line of RAM elements. Fascinating stuff!”

Thank you, the explanation helped a lot.

Next, a comment from Andrew Maynard, Science Advisor for the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN) about their event “Small is Beautiful” which would have had Maynard and a L’Oreal scientist talking about nanotechnology safety and cosmetics from the European perspective. The talk which was to take place June 5, 2008 was postponed within a week of two studies (one about carbon nanotubes and the other about fullerenes) being released that occasioned a lot of online discussion about nanotechnology safety. (Maynard was one of the authors for the carbon nanotube study.) Here’s his comment:

  • “No hidden agenda here – our speaker from L’Oreal couldn’t make it for personal reasons. We are intending to reschedule as soon as possible – stay tuned!”

Thank you and I checked again this morning and unfortunately, they haven’t rescheduled yet.

Canada’s nano article numbers (part 1) and what happened to Martha Cook Piper?

M. Fatih Yegul (University of Waterloo) sent me info. about  his latest paper titled: “Nanotechnology: Canada’s Position in Scientific Publications and Patents” in answer to my question about numbers of articles published by Canadian researchers (as per my June 12 posting about the June 2008 editorial in Nature Nanotechnology’s analysis of various countries). He’ll be presenting his paper at the PICMET ’08 Conference in South Africa (website is or click here) which will be published in the proceedings afterwards.

Yegul provides a very nice description of nanotechnology and its brief history and summarizes some of the policy issues succinctly. His quotes from multiple sources pointing out that Canada lacks a national nanotech strategy or coordination of effort confirmed my dawning suspicions. (I’ve been trying to find something definitive about Canadian nano for the last 1.5 years but most of the material is out of date and scattered wildly over various websites.)

I’ll talk about the numbers (some of them) tomorrow as Yegul has sliced and diced through a number of studies about published articles and patents and as you’d expect there are competing methodologies and acronyms that are unfamiliar to me.

Meanwhile, there was an announcement about Martha Cook Piper’s appointment to the Board of Trustees of the [Canada] National Institute of Nanotechnology (NINT) in April 2008 (see here).  Strangely, she’s not listed on the NINT website. You can find her predecessor, Preston Manning still listed (here), but no Martha. In fact, if you visit the website newsroom (here), you’ll find there’s no mention of her appointment or news of any kind since Sept. 2007. Hmmm….

EMI and nanotech plus fashion and nanoparticles

Now I can guess why I haven’t heard back from EMI (music and recording label), after asking them for permission to put an MP3 version of Flanders & Swann song (unintentional wordplay, at first), ‘First and Second Law’ on my Nanotech Mysteries wiki (the project I’m developing for my dissertation). The song is about the first and second laws of thermodynamics (there aren’t that many physics songs and thanks to Richard Jones for mentioning it in his nanotech book, Soft Machines) and it would fit in well with how I see my nano wiki developing. Apparently, EMI hold the rights which should mean a simple request and a ‘yes or no’ answer. That’s what I thought until this morning when I saw an article in the New York Times (here) by Tim Arango.

There was a takeover last year and the transition has not been smooth. At the moment, they’re planning on dropping about 1/3 of their workforce. I guess the employees have had more pressing concerns than replying to my request. Of course, the music industry seems to be in disarray as they’ve been hit with the music downloading situation which has led to questions about copyright and payments. (It’s more complicated than that and you might want to check out Techdirt (at which comments and keeps track of these kinds of issues.) The whole thing really strikes home given the Canadian government’s recent copyright bill which will make criminals of almost everyone in the country.

The whole discussion seems ironic to me because when I was researching a paper on technology transfer about 15 years ago there was a lot of speculation as to why there was so much pirating and exchange of ‘free’ software in Asia. The consensus at the time was that these were cultural issues. Funny, the spirit that led Asian people to copy paid-for (or pirated) software and give it fot free to their friends seems remarkably similar to what we see happening globally with music. Maybe it’s cultural, maybe it’s something else.

A New Zealand researcher has found a way to introduce gold and/or silver nanoparticles into wool creating some unusual colour effects. The article with more details is available at the Nanowerk website here. If the article is to be believed you might be able to buy a $200 to $300 scarf woven in gold or silver (particles) in the not too distant future. It’s a little disconcerting that there aren’t many studies to determine if it’s healthy for humans or what the impact of these nanoparticles (which are in all kinds of products currently available) might be environmentally. It’s good to hear that the US Dept of Energy has awarded a $400,000 grant (details here) to researchers to look into these issues.

If you are interested in some pretty nanopictures, there are some ‘nano flowers’ here at Nanovida, produced by a PhD student Ghim Wei Ho. He works at Dr. Mark Welland at Cambridge University.

I didn’t find any Canadian nano today.

Shapeshifting cars and NanoQuebec adds a CEO

Shades of Knight Rider and KITT! BMW announced a shapshifting car (more details here) yesterday. They don’t specifically mention nanotechnology but it’s hard to imagine how else they might accomplish their aims. I’ve read (skimmed) their seven page press release which has subheads like this “The interior: discourse between driver and vehicle.” (That doesn’t make sense unless the car is talking to you as it does in the tv series Knight Rider and there’s no mention of that capability.) It’s the “GINA Light Visionary Model” and It has some sort of fabric skin which is flexible and seems to be a replacement for the standard metal covering. Lots of hyperbole and excitement, very little detail.

NanoQuebec announced the appointment of  its first president and CEO, Dr. Robert Crawhall. His background is in telecommunications. More details here.

Numbers of published nano articles, China, and Canada’s nanotech

Nature Nanotechnology published an editorial in their June 2008 issue about which countries have published the most articles and which are most often cited. In examining their own journal and a couple studies, they found that the US has published the most with China coming up quickly to overtake US output in the near future.

How do you attribute an article to a country? In these studies, they looked at the lead author’s affiliation. For number freaks, Nature Nanotechnology published 94 letters and 55 articles with 47.6% of the authors being located in the US, followed by 8% from the UK, 7.4% from Japan and 6.7% from Germany. I guess the rest of us make up the other 30% or so. The figures about the China’s articles come from other studies that the editorial cites. (I’d link to Nature Nanotech but the journal’s latest issues are behind a paywall. They’ll let you sniff some of the cheese but you won’t be able to take a bite for at least a year.)

One point they do make is that the Chinese articles aren’t cited as often as US articles or even Japanese articles (China’s output has been higher than Japan’s since 1990). All of which is interesting since, citations are one measure of quality and/or influence. I think it’s safe to assume that  they’re talking about articles that were written in English so we’re not looking at language issues. Still, I can think of at least one reason why work from China might not be cited as often: geopolitical tensions.

Here’s another suggestion: where are the Chinese authors getting published? If your work isn’t being published in journals that other interested parties are reading, how are you going to get cited? (Brief related story) I do research for a psychiatrist (he specializes in pain management) who’s interested in checking out some of the latest research on morphine. I have two entirely separate research tracks each with their own specialized vocabularies and specialty-specific journals. If I use the wrong words, I won’t find the other research material. (Back to the nano) So now there are two other possible problems. Researchers casually thumbing through Nature Nanotechnology are not going to see many articles from China (as per the June 2008 editorial) and, if Chinese researchers are using the vocabulary differently, standard keyword research strategies aren’t going to  lead you to their work.

As for the Canadian nanotechnology scene, we don’t seem to be on the radar for either Nature Nanotechnology or the two studies they cited. I’m a little curious about that since there was a presenter at the 2008 Cascadia Nanotechnology Symposium in March who focussed on numbers of articles published by Canadian nano researchers. As I recall, he indicated that our numbers are pretty healthy.  I’m trying to track that info. down but I can’t find M. Fatih Yegul’s (University of Waterloo) presentation on the symposium website or any other published version of his information.