Monthly Archives: November 2011

Printing bones

Apparently all you need is an inkjet printer and some researchers from Washington State University (WSU) at Pullman to create new bone. From the Nov. 29, 2011 news item (written by Eric Sorenson of WSU) on Nanowerk,

Washington State University researchers have used a 3D printer to create a bone-like material and structure that can be used in orthopedic procedures, dental work and to deliver medicine for treating osteoporosis. Paired with actual bone, it acts as a scaffold for new bone to grow on and ultimately dissolves with no apparent ill effects. [emphasis mine]

The authors report on successful in vitro tests in the journal Dental Materials (“Effects of silica and zinc oxide doping on mechanical and biological properties of 3D printed tricalcium phosphate tissue engineering scaffolds” [behind a paywall]) and say they’re already seeing promising results with in vivo tests on rats and rabbits. It’s possible that doctors will be able to custom order replacement bone tissue in a few years, said Susmita Bose, co-author and professor in WSU’s School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering.

The printer works by having an inkjet spray a plastic binder over a bed of powder in layers of 20 microns, about half the width of a human hair. Following a computer’s directions, it creates a channeled cylinder the size of a pencil eraser.

After just a week in a medium with immature human bone cells, the scaffold was supporting a network of new bone cells.

Here’s a video of Dr. Bose discussing the inkjet printer that produces bone-like material,

The Nov. 30, 2011 news item about the bone scaffolding work on BBC News adds more detail,

Prof Bose’s team have spent four years developing the bone-like substance.

Their breakthrough came when they discovered a way to double the strength of the main ceramic powder – calcium phosphate – by adding silica and zinc oxide.

To create the scaffold shapes they customised a printer which had originally been designed to make three-dimensional metal objects.

It sprayed a plastic binder over the loose powder in layers half as thick as the width of a human hair.

The process was repeated layer by layer until completed, at which point the scaffold was dried, cleaned and then baked for two hours at 1250C (2282F).

Earlier this year I highlighted a story about a trachea transplant where they used scaffolding to grow trachea cells in much the same way the WSU team is using a scaffolding to grow bone cells. Here are the posts about the trachea transplant and scaffolding from the first to the last,

Body parts nano style

Making nanotechnology-enabled body parts

More on synthetic windpipe; Swedes and Italians talk about nanoscience and medicine

NanoSail-D cleans up space junk

Given that our enthusiasm for launching satellites, etc. into the skies has resulted in a floating junk yard as older satellites become inoperable and new ones are sent up to join the old ones, it’s good to see news that NASA (US National Aeronautics and Space Administration) has completed a successful trial project aimed at removing the debris. From the Nov. 29, 2011 news item on Science Daily,

After spending more than 240 days “sailing” around Earth, NASA’s NanoSail-D — a nanosatellite that deployed NASA’s first-ever solar sail in low-Earth orbit — has successfully completed its Earth orbiting mission.

The flight phase of the mission successfully demonstrated a deorbit capability that could potentially be used to bring down decommissioned satellites and space debris by re-entering and totally burning up in Earth’s atmosphere. The team continues to analyze the orbital data to determine how future satellites can use this new technology.

This technology sounds remarkably like an idea for cleaning up space junk that Dr. Kristen Gates presented at a conference last year. From my Aug. 10, 2010 posting (this section was originally excerpted from the Fast Company article, The Most Beautiful Way to Clean Up Space Junk: A Giant GOLD Balloon [scroll about 1/2 way down]),

Dr. Kristen Gates has one idea, and it’s beautiful and simple. It’s dubbed GOLD–the Gossamer Orbit Lowering Device–and it’s just been revealed at the “Artificial and Natural Space Debris” session of the AIAA Astrodynamics Specialists Conference.

GOLD is not much more than a football-field sized balloon (made of gossamer-thin but super-tough material, a little like solar sails) that is flown into orbit deflated in a suitcase-sized box and then fastened to a dead satellite. It’s then inflated to maximum size, and the huge bulk of the balloon massively increases the atmospheric drag that satellites experience up there in the void. … The drag acts to slow a satellite in its orbital path, and then simple orbital mechanics means the satellite descends into the atmosphere where the denser air heats it to the point it burns up.

Back to the news item on Science Daily for more details about the project and NASA’s partnership with a citizen science organization,

NanoSail-D orbited Earth for 240 days performing well beyond expectations and burned up during reentry to Earth’s atmosphere on Sept. 17 [2011].

NASA formed a partnership with Spaceweather.com to engage the amateur astronomy community to submit images of the orbiting NanoSail-D solar sail during the flight phase of the mission. NanoSail-D was a very elusive target to spot in the night sky — at times very bright and other times difficult to see at all. Many ground observations were made over the course of the mission. The imaging challenge concluded with NanoSail-D’s deorbit. Winners will be announced in early 2012.

A gallery of the NanoSail-D images is now available and here’s a sample of what you’ll find,

Moon-NanoSail Conjunction! Credit: Enzo De Bernardini, Buenos Aires, Argentina Jan. 27, 2011

Here’s De Bernardini’s description of his image,

I caught NanoSail-D crossing the vicinity of the waning moon in a one-second exposure. The satellite has low magnitude (i.e., it is dim), and so the image was enhanced considerably. Slight cloudiness present. The published orbital elements are accurate, the conjunction took place at exactly predicted time. Used a Canon EOS 300D camera at ISO-800, and 80 mm F/5 refractor telescope. Processed with PixInsight.

There’s a separate website for the NanoSail-D project which you can check out here.

Quantum entanglement and magnetism

A joint Indian/Austrian research team has uncovered the secrets behind why manganese oxides (manganites) have demonstrably different properties when size is reduced. From the Nov. 29, 2011 news item on Nanowerk,

Material properties such as electrical conductivity, magnetic properties or the melting point do not depend on an object’s size and shape. “In India, however, an experiment recently showed that special manganese oxides – so called manganites – exhibit completely different properties, when their size is reduced to tiny grains”, Karsten Held explains.

A team of scientists from the Vienna University of Technology (Austria) and the University of Calcutta (India) investigated this phenomenon – and the new effect could be explained in computer simulations. In a crossover from large crystals to smaller crystals, the distribution of the electrons changes, and so does their energy. This, in turn, changes the electrical and magnetic properties of the crystal. “The phenomenon of quantum entanglement plays a very important role here”, says Professor Karsten Held. “We cannot think of the electrons as classical particles, moving independently of each other, on well-separated paths. The electrons can only be described collectively.” By changing their size, the properties of the manganite-crystals can now be harnessed. Larger crystals are insulators, and they are not magnetic. Tiny crystal pieces on the other hand turn out to be metallic ferromagnets.

Here’s an image of a magnet and crystals,

A magnet and an illustration of manganite cystals (downloaded from the Vienna University of Technology wesite)

Here’s a link to the Nov. 29, 2011 news release from the Vienna University of Technology where you can find additional information in English and German and some pictures.

Nanosunscreens, zinc oxide, cancer, and the latest research

Researchers in Singapore (Nanyang Technological University and the National University of Singapore) have published a study suggesting that nano zinc oxide, found in some sunscreens, may potentially cause cancer. The Nov. 29, 2011 news item on Nanowerk provides this detail,

The chemical, Zinc Oxide, is used to absorb harmful ultra violet light. But when it is turned into nano-sized particles, they are able to enter human cells and may damage the cells’ DNA. This in turn activates a protein called p53, whose duty is to prevent damaged cells from multiplying and becoming cancerous. However, cells that lack p53 or do not produce enough functional p53 may instead develop into cancerous cells when they come into contact with Zinc Oxide nanoparticles. [emphases mine]

I was able to access the study and while I’m not an expert by any means I did note that the study was ‘in vitro’, in this case, the cells were on slides when they were being studied. It’s impossible to draw hard and fast conclusions about what will happen in a body (human or otherwise) since there are other systems at work which are not present on a slide.

A few items I was not able to determine (it’s in the study but I don’t understand the term ‘sonicate’ or others the researchers used),

  • were the concentrations of nano zinc oxide used in the research the standard concentrations one would find in a sunscreen, and
  • were the cells continuously exposed to nano zinc oxide, e.g. sitting in a bath of the chemical, or were the cells exposed in the way cells in a body would be exposed

I ask these questions not to so much to expose my ignorance but to point out how difficult it is draw conclusions from a study when you don’t have the training for it. In fact, if you read the news item on Nanowerk or the study (The role of the tumor suppressor p53 pathway in the cellular DNA damage response to zinc oxide nanoparticles [article behind paywall]), you’ll notice that even the researchers have phrased their findings very carefully.

You’ll also notice that there is another agenda (from the news item on Nanowerk),

The breakthrough also validated efforts by Asst Prof Loo and Asst Prof Ng to pioneer a research group in the emerging field of nanotoxicology, which is still very much in its infancy throughout the world.

The research team would also like to work with the European Union to uncover the risks involving nanomaterials and how these materials should be regulated before they are made commercially available. Asst Prof Joachim Loo, who received his Bachelor and Doctorate degrees from NTU, was the only Singaporean representative in a recent nanotechnology workshop held in Europe. At the workshop, it was agreed that research collaborations in nanotoxicology between EU and South-east Asia should be increased.

Another research study on nano zinc oxide was released last year (it was not cited in the references for the latest Nov. 2011 study). From the Aug. 20, 2010 news item on physorg.com,

A technique developed by Macquarie University has proven for the first time that a tiny amount of zinc from sunscreens is absorbed through the skin into the human body, but is not yet able to discern whether the zinc is in nanoparticle form.

Professor Brian Gulson of Macquarie University conducted the research – published online in the current edition of the journal Toxicological Sciences – with collaborators in CSIRO and the Australian National University and the Australian Photobiology Testing Facility. The research was widely reported on in February 2010 following a presentation by Gulson at a scientific conference.

The team traced the skin absorption of a highly purified and stable isotope which allowed them to distinguish the zinc from the sunscreen from that which is naturally present in the body or environment. Zinc is absolutely essential to bodily functions.

The researchers suggest that follow-up studies from the scientific community with different formulations over longer periods of time are essential, but that until evidence to the contrary is obtained, people spending time outdoors should continue to use sunscreens.

Getting back to that question about the concentration of the nano zinc oxide solution used in the most recent studies in Singapore, here’s what Brian Gulson had to say about nano zinc oxide concentrations in his work and about a shortcoming in his study (from an Australian Broadcasting Corporation [ABC] Feb. 25, 2010 interview with Ashley Hall,

BRIAN GULSON: I guess the critical thing was that we didn’t find large amounts of it getting through the skin. The sunscreens contain 18 to 20 per cent zinc oxide usually and ours was about 20 per zinc. So that’s an awful lot of zinc you’re putting on the skin but we found tiny amounts in the blood of that tracer that we used.

ASHLEY HALL: So is it a significant amount?

BRIAN GULSON: No, no it’s really not.

ASHLEY HALL: But Brian Gulson is warning people who use a lot of sunscreen over an extended period that they could be at risk of having elevated levels of zinc.

BRIAN GULSON: Maybe with young children where you’re applying it seven days a week, it could be an issue but I’m more than happy to continue applying it to my grandchildren.

ASHLEY HALL: This study doesn’t shed any light on the question of whether the nano-particles themselves played a part in the zinc absorption.

BRIAN GULSON: That was the most critical thing. This isotope technique cannot tell whether or not it’s a zinc oxide nano-particle that got through skin or whether it’s just zinc that was dissolved up in contact with the skin and then forms zinc ions or so-called soluble ions. So that’s one major deficiency of our study.

Of course, I have a question about Gulson’s conclusion  that very little of the nano zinc oxide was penetrating the skin based on blood and urine samples taken over the course of the study. Is it possible that after penetrating the skin it was stored in the cells  instead of being eliminated?

It seems it’s not yet time to press the panic button since more research is needed for scientists to refine their understanding of nano zinc oxide and possible health effects from its use.

Final note: The researchers listed on the Singapore study are: Kee Woei Ng, Stella P.K. Khoo, Boon Chin Heng, Magdiel I. Setyawati, Eng Chok Tan, Xinxin Zhao, Sijing Xiong, Wanru Fang, David T. Leong, and Joachim S.C. Loo

Nanopaprika.eu celebrates 4th anniversary

It started as a social networking community for nanoscientists in 2007. From the Nov. 25, 2011 news item on Nanotechnology Now,

“It’s all started accidentally”
- recalls András Paszternák, PhD, founder of the portal. “One cold November morning, I met Professor Erika Kálmán, my PhD supervisor, at the corridor of the Chemical Research Center of Hungarian Academy of Sciences. She offer me to edit an already existing Hungarian nanowebpage. I asked for time to reflect, and in next day I suggested to start a community site, which will be updated with new content by members.” adds the Postdoctoral Fellow from Bar-Ilan University.

The page can be described as a place of constant renewal from the beginning. In 2011 it has become even more attractive with an international virtual poster conference, research teams and members “HOT papers” database.

Today there are many from USA, across Europe to Asia who are using the webpage to find new jobs, awards, or partners to start joint research projects.

The website Paszternák founded is nanopaprika.eu. From Nanopaprika’s About us page,

The heat is on for an online social networking community for nanoscientists. The International Nanoscience Community, TINC, was cooked up by Hungarian chemistry PhD student Andras Paszternak. It now provides a rich menu of communication tools for the international community of scientists working in the growing field of nanoscience and nanotechnology and recently passed the 5100 members mark.
The virtual nano community is fully equipped with all the functions one expects from a modern online networking site: personal chat, a scientific forum, more than 50 thematic groups, including microscopy, nanomedicine, and even a discussion forum on safety and toxicity. TINC is also a media partner for more than 45 nano conferences on different topics in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012.

The easiest way to describe nanopaprika would be to say that if the LinkedIn and Nanowerk websites had a child born in Europe, this would be it.

Michael Crichton publishes nano novel from beyond the grave

Michael Crichton died in Nov. 2008 and his latest book, published Nov. 22, 2011, is titled Micro. It’s being billed as a nanotechnology thriller. From the Nov. 27, 2011 article by Philip Sherwell for The Telegraph,

The result is Mr Crichton’s 17th novel, Micro. About the first third of the 424 pages were written by the best-selling science fiction author himself, the rest by Richard Preston, a former veterinarian turned novelist [best known for Hot Zone].

Set in the rainforest of Hawaii, the techno-thriller features murderous micro-robots, a villainous nanotechnology entrepreneur and Harvard biology students shrunk to less than an inch tall, then exposed to the terrors of killer bugs, among other lethal threats of the natural world. It is, in many ways, a miniature version of the man-versus-dinosaur scenario of the Crichton classic, Jurassic Park.

Crichton did write an earlier ‘nano’ thriller, Prey. (I read it but was not especially impressed.)

If you are interested in the writing aspect, i.e., what is it like to collaborate with someone when all you have are the notes, then Sherwell’s article provides some good insight. Hint: Having the dead author’s longtime personal assistant ready to help is a great advantage.

I did find a Nov. 28, 2011 review of Micro by Jeff VanderMeer for the Los Angeles Times,

What if we had the technology to miniaturize people and objects? That’s the central premise behind “Micro” by “Jurassic Park’s” Michael Crichton and “The Hot Zone’s” Richard Preston. Crichton wrote one-third of “Micro” before his death in 2008 — which third seems largely irrelevant, as the entire novel functions as a well-oiled but oddly soulless machine. All of the edges have been sanded off of prose that is supremely functional and most of the workmanlike characters seem resigned to being transformed into actors on a movie screen

The premise bears a resemblance to the  one they used for the 1989 movie,  Honey, I shrunk the kids. From the Internet Movie Database page for the movie,

The scientist father of two teenage boys accidentally shrinks his and two other neighborhood teens to the size of insects. Now the teens must fight diminutive dangers as the father searches for them.

Of course, Honey, … was a comedy while Crichton specialized in thrillers.

$50,000 from DARPA if you can solve five puzzles

If you’re planning to win the DARPA (US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) Shredder Challenge, you’d best register by Nov. 28, 2011, 5 pm ET. In other words, there’s about 40 mins. left. From the DARPA Shredder Challenge page,

Today’s troops often confiscate the remnants of destroyed documents in war zones, but reconstructing them is a daunting task. DARPA’s Shredder Challenge calls upon computer scientists, puzzle enthusiasts and anyone else who likes solving complex problems to compete for up to $50,000 by piecing together a series of shredded documents.

The goal is to identify and assess potential capabilities that could be used by our warfighters operating in war zones, but might also create vulnerabilities to sensitive information that is protected through our own shredding practices throughout the U.S. national security community.

Do you have the skills to reconstruct shredded documents and solve the puzzle?


The Shredder Challenge is comprised of five separate puzzles in which the number of documents, the document subject matter and the method of shredding will be varied to present challenges of increasing difficulty. To complete each problem, participants must provide the answer to a puzzle embedded in the content of the reconstructed document.

The overall prizewinner and prize awarded will depend on the number and difficulty of the problems solved. DARPA will release the challenge problems on October 27, 2011 at 12:00 PM Eastern and announce a winner the week of December 5, 2011 once final results are calculated.

Teams have solved up to four puzzles; it’s the answer to the last puzzle which is proving elusive. There’s not much time left to register but there is still time to solve the puzzles.

Transitions at Vive Crop

Yesterday, Vive Nano; today, Vive Crop Protection. I got a notice that the company, based in Ontario, Canada, has effected a name change. From the Nov. 23, 2011 company notice,

In keeping with our increasing focus on crop protection, we are changing how we present ourselves.  Going forward, we will be referring to our company as Vive Crop Protection, or simply as Vive.

We feel that this helps clarify what we do.  We are “simple small”, so simplifying our name is the right thing.

Last February I featured an interview with then Vive Nano’s Darren Anderson, Chief Technical Officer, and Keith Thomas, Chief Executive Officer (my Feb. 25 2011 posting). Here’s the latest description of what the company does (from the home page which is now at www.vivecrop.com),

We formulate and deliver active ingredients using our ultra-small, water dispersible polymer particles. Our formulations enhance product performance, add convenience and reduce the use of harmful chemical additives. Our main focus is the formulation of crop protection active ingredients. We also work with customers to design formulations for other applications.

The company was recently profiled (Nov. 22, 2011) in a slideshow about innovation in Canada by Tavia Grant for the Globe & Mail newspaper. Excerpted from the ‘Vive Nano’ slide,

It can’t compete with the likes of multinational giants like DuPont or Bayer, who spend hundreds of millions of dollars on research. But it can work with them to supply new ingredients to their fertilizers that are less harmful to the environment, particularly as patents in the sector expire and big companies search for new replacements.

In its five-year history the company has won many awards and developed a clientele that spans the US, Europe and India.

Collide@CERN dance/performance prize

The Collide@CERN (European Laboratory for Particle Physics) arts project has announced a second arts residency this time for a dancer/performer (I mentioned the first residency, which was for a digital artist, in my Sept. 21, 2011 posting). This second competition has a deadline of Dec. 20, 2011. From the Nov. 23, 2011 notice on the International Network for Contemporary Performing Arts,

The new Collide@CERN dance and performance prize is funded by the City and Canton of Geneva to celebrate Geneva as an important place for the arts and science past, present and future.

The chance to win this funded residency is open to choreographers and performers born in Geneva, or international artists from any country currently working or living in Geneva. The organisers are looking for dynamic artists in dance or performance who enjoy stretching boundaries, will be truly inspired to feed their imagination with the science of particle physics, and is interested in engaging with the laboratory in a multiplicity of ways.

The Collide@CERN Geneva prize comprises a bursary of 15,000CHF which allows the winning artist to work for 3 months at CERN, including giving two public lectures at the Globe of Science and Innovation, contributing a blog about the creative arts/science process and regular lunchtime advice sessions at CERN. The winning artist will be assigned a special science inspiration partner for the duration of their residency and have an office on site.

The prize also includes a grant of up to 15,000 CHF to cover the costs of developing a new CERN-inspired work with associate artists during the 3-month residency. Submissions open 4 November must be received by 20 December 2011. The winner will be announced in January 2012.

There is no age requirement, you must either have been born in Geneva or currently living and/or working there; you will receive a total of up 30,000 Swiss francs (15,000 as a bursary for living expenses and another 15,000 for a new CERN-inspired project).  Also (from the Collide@CERN Geneva Prize in Dance and Performance page on the CERN website),

To apply, you need to send the following:

  • A personal testimony and a description of a proposed project no more than 3 pages
  • A curriculum vitae, including examples of projects in DVD or website

They do very much expect a project that speaks to particle physics, from the Collide@CERN dance/performance prize page,

Space, time and gravity are the fundamental forces in dance and performance, just as they are in particle physics.

There will be more arts projects from the Collide@CERN initiative,

Collide@CERN explores elements even more elusive than the Higgs Boson – human ingenuity, creativity and imagination. It is CERN’s new experiment in arts and science: a 3-year artist’s residency programme initiated by the laboratory.

The Collide@CERN prize – an open call to artists working in different art forms – will be awarded annually until 2013. It comprises prize money and a residency grant for up to 3 months at CERN. The winning artists will interact and engage with CERN scientists in order to take their artistic work to new creative dimensions. Two domains were announced in 2011 – Digital Arts and Dance/Performance. We aim to add additional awards in new art forms when we achieve additional external funding – so sign up to Twitter and our RSS feed to keep posted.

They have quite a list of artists and sponsoring organizations for this arts project,

Some of the greatest artists working today are creative patrons of the Collide@CERN project: Swiss architect Jacques Herz, Japanese artist Mariko Mori, German photographer Andreas Gursky, British sculptor Antony Gormley, musician Brian Eno, wildlife artist Frans Lanting, and Swiss video artist Pipilotti Rist. These world-famous artists have all have visited CERN and been inspired by the work we do here.

Our international cultural partnerships with leading arts organisations support the project. Our renowned cultural partners include the digital arts organization Ars Electronica in Linz, Austria, the sound and music conservatoire IRCAM in Paris, France and the Free Word centre literature house in London, UK.

I look forward to hearing more about future residencies as they are announced. Meanwhile, good luck if you’re applying for the dance/performance prize.