New molecular ruler could help with developing antibiotics

Researchers at the University of Utah have developed a molecular ruler which could help to determine the length at which a nanoscale needle is effective. From a March 17, 2015 news item on Azonano,

When a salmonella bacterium attacks a cell, it uses a nanoscopic needle to inject it with proteins to aid the infection. If the needle is too short, the cell won’t be infected. Too long, and the needle breaks. Now, University of Utah biologists report how a disposable molecular ruler or tape measure determines the length of the bacterial needle so it is just right.

The findings have potential long-term applications for developing new antibiotics against salmonella and certain other disease-causing bacteria, for designing bacteria that could inject cancer cells with chemotherapy drugs, and for helping people how to design machines at the nanoscopic or molecular scale.

A March 16, 2015 University of Utah news release, which originated the news item, provides some insight from the researchers,

“If you look at important pathogens – the bubonic plague bacterium, salmonella, shigella and plant pathogens like fire blight – they all use hypodermic-like needles to inject proteins that facilitate disease processes,” Hughes [University of Utah biology professor Kelly Hughes] says.

“Our work says that there is one mechanism – the molecular ruler – to explain how the lengths are controlled for needles in gram-negative bacteria and for hooks on flagella [the U-joints in propellers bacteria use to move] in all bacteria,” he adds.

In their study, Wee [University of Utah doctoral student Daniel Wee] and Hughes found that as a bacterial needle or “injectisome” grows, a molecular ruler – really, more like a gooey tape measure – is secreted from within the needle’s base. It oozes up through the tube-like needle, and when the bottom end of the ruler reaches the bottom end of the needle, the needle stops growing and begins to inject proteins into the target cell to help the infection process.

The biologists say the [US] National Institutes of Health-funded study refutes other theories for how salmonella and some other disease bacteria determine needle lengths.

The news release also explains how this finding could be made useful,

“What we understand from bacteria can help us build nanomachines and nanobots,” Hughes says, noting that bacterial flagella – the nanoscopic motor-and-propeller system they use to swim to dinner or to targets – are “the most sophisticated nanomachines in the universe.”

In one example, Swiss scientists are using the design of bacterial flagella as the basis for a nanobot that will be put inside the eye to do nanoscale surgery, he adds.

In addition to flagella, a number of disease-causing bacteria also have injectisomes, which also are built of proteins, as are most structures in living organisms.

“In the case of the needle, you have a structure that extends from the surface of the bacterium like a hypodermic,” Hughes says. “These needles are fragile. If one is too long, it will break off and be useless. If you make it too short, then it can’t get past the surface proteins on cells it needs to invade.”

By understanding how bacteria determine the length for their needles, it someday may be possible to engineer bacteria to inject chemotherapy drugs right into cancer cells.

“People would like to design bacteria that can get to cancer cells and inject poisons into just those cells and kill them, and not harm the rest of us,” Hughes says.

And by understanding how certain disease-causing bacteria build their injectisomes, new antibiotics might be developed in a decade or so to target and destroy the needles and thus deter bacterial infections. The rulers that help build flagella also might be attacked by drugs to prevent bacteria from reaching target cells, “so you can kill two birds with one stone by hitting the two machines at the same time,” Hughes says.

He says that approach might work against injectisome-equipped bacteria such as salmonella species that cause typhoid fever and food poisoning; shigella species that cause dysentery; the bubonic plague bacterium Yersinia pestis; disease-causing E. coli; sexually transmitted Chlamydia trachomatis; many plant pathogens; and Pseudomonas aeruginosa, which often infects burn patients and the lungs of cystic fibrosis patients.

Not usually my kind of thing, I find this quite fascinating (from the news release),

Bacteria secrete a molecular ruler to measure needle length

Bacterial injectisomes are incredibly small, measuring only 20 to 100 nanometers long. A nanometer is one billionth of a meter, and a meter is about 39 inches long. The width of a typical human hair often is given as 100 microns, so the maximum length of a bacterial needle, 100 nanometers, is one-thousandth of the width of a human hair.

Gram-negative, disease-causing bacteria “are very closely related species, so how do they subtly control the various needle lengths to be perfect?” Hughes asks. “In one case it might be 40 nanometers versus 55 nanometers. These are small sizes. So to do this, the bacteria developed molecular rulers to differentiate needles of different lengths.”

(Gram-negative bacteria are those with membranes lining both the inside and outside of their cell wall, while gram-positive bacteria have only an inner membrane.)

Like any cell, a bacterium is encased in a cell wall. So bacteria developed all kinds of secretions to make contact with and infect other cells: flagellar propellers to swim to food or target cells, docking structures to help bacteria stick to targets, and injectisomes to inject infection-promoting proteins into targets.

When a bacterium builds a needle, it first builds a base. “A series of proteins form a doughnut, and inside the doughnut hole, the actual secretion machine gets constructed,” Hughes says. “It’s the same for the flagella as it is for these needles.”

Next, proteins start assembling to form the needle or injectisome.

The new study demonstrated that in salmonella, the ruler or tape measure is secreted slowly through the channel of the growing needle. Once amino acids at the bottom end of the ruler pass through the base of the needle, they tell the bacterium that the needle is long enough and to stop growing. They also tell the needle to injecting virulence proteins into the target cell, and the molecular ruler is ejected, Wee says.

Here’s an image of what the injectisome looks like,

On the left is an electron microscope image of an injectisome, the nanoscopic needle that salmonella and certain other bacteria use to inject proteins into target cells as part of the infection process. The illustration at center depicts the exterior of the needle and its base. The cross-section at right shows the string-like molecular ruler that determines the length of salmonella’s bacteria needle, according to a new University of Utah study by doctoral student Daniel Wee and biology professor Kelly Hughes. Credit: Daniel Wee, University of Utah

On the left is an electron microscope image of an injectisome, the nanoscopic needle that salmonella and certain other bacteria use to inject proteins into target cells as part of the infection process. The illustration at center depicts the exterior of the needle and its base. The cross-section at right shows the string-like molecular ruler that determines the length of salmonella’s bacteria needle, according to a new University of Utah study by doctoral student Daniel Wee and biology professor Kelly Hughes. Credit: Daniel Wee, University of Utah

The news release also offers some specific details about the research,

How the study was performed

The new study used the Typhimurium strain of Salmonella enterica, which causes food poisoning. The researchers proved the molecular ruler determines needle length in salmonella by inserting amino acids from the plague bacterium’s molecular ruler genes into genes for salmonella’s molecular ruler, making rulers with seven different lengths.

Genetically engineered salmonella with seven ruler lengths were grown in a flask, their needles isolated, and the needle lengths measured under an electron microscope.

Wee found the ruler lengths correlated precisely with the lengths of the resulting needles or injectisomes, with each amino acid added to the ruler gene making the resulting needle 0.2 nanometers longer.

Previous studies found the molecular ruler determines the length of the hook or U-joint that helps turn flagella or propellers in many bacteria. Research also found the molecular ruler determines the length of both the flagellar hook and the needle in plague bacteria. But some researchers argued salmonella needle’s length was determined by some other mechanism:

– One theory holds that a molecular measuring cup in the needle’s base sends a cupful of needle components to assemble the needle, and the length of the needle is determined by the size of the cup. The new study disproved that by genetically removing the cup and showing that the injectisomes or needles still grew to correct lengths.

– Another theory says that as needle components assemble outside the needle’s base, a rod-shaped structure assembles inside the base to link the base and needle, and that when the rod is complete, needle assembly stops, thus determining needle length. But the Utah study found the rod and needle components are not made simultaneously, but compete with each other, so as more rod parts are made, fewer needle parts are made, giving an illusion that rod completion controls needle length.

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

Molecular ruler determines needle length for the Salmonella Spi-1 injectisome by Daniel H. Wee and Kelly T. Hughes. Published online before print March 16, 2015, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1423492112 PNAS March 16, 2015

This paper is behind a paywall.


Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star (song) could lead to better data storage

A March 16, 2015 news item on Nanowerk features research from the University of Illinois and the song ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star’,

Researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have demonstrated the first-ever recording of optically encoded audio onto a non-magnetic plasmonic nanostructure, opening the door to multiple uses in informational processing and archival storage.

“The chip’s dimensions are roughly equivalent to the thickness of human hair,” explained Kimani Toussaint, an associate professor of mechanical science and engineering, who led the research.

Specifically, the photographic film property exhibited by an array of novel gold, pillar-supported bowtie nanoantennas (pBNAs)–previously discovered by Toussaint’s group–was exploited to store sound and audio files. Compared with the conventional magnetic film for analog data storage, the storage capacity of pBNAs is around 5,600 times larger, indicating a vast array of potential storage uses.

The researchers have provide a visual image illustrating their work,

Nano piano concept: Arrays of gold, pillar-supported bowtie nanoantennas (bottom left) can be used to record distinct musical notes, as shown in the experimentally obtained dark-field microscopy images (bottom right). These particular notes were used to compose 'Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.'  Courtesy of University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Nano piano concept: Arrays of gold, pillar-supported bowtie nanoantennas (bottom left) can be used to record distinct musical notes, as shown in the experimentally obtained dark-field microscopy images (bottom right). These particular notes were used to compose ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.’ Courtesy of University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

A March 16, 2015 University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the research in more detail (Note: Links have been removed),

To demonstrate its abilities to store sound and audio files, the researchers created a musical keyboard or “nano piano,” using the available notes to play the short song, “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”

“Data storage is one interesting area to think about,” Toussaint said. “For example, one can consider applying this type of nanotechnology to enhancing the niche, but still important, analog technology used in the area of archival storage such as using microfiche. In addition, our work holds potential for on-chip, plasmonic-based information processing.”

The researchers demonstrated that the pBNAs could be used to store sound information either as a temporally varying intensity waveform or a frequency varying intensity waveform. Eight basic musical notes, including middle C, D, and E, were stored on a pBNA chip and then retrieved and played back in a desired order to make a tune.

“A characteristic property of plasmonics is the spectrum,” said Hao Chen, a former postdoctoral researcher in Toussaint’s PROBE laboratory and the first author of the paper, “Plasmon-Assisted Audio Recording,” appearing in the Nature Publishing Group’s Scientific Reports. “Originating from a plasmon-induced thermal effect, well-controlled nanoscale morphological changes allow as much as a 100-nm spectral shift from the nanoantennas. By employing this spectral degree-of-freedom as an amplitude coordinate, the storage capacity can be improved. Moreover, although our audio recording focused on analog data storage, in principle it is still possible to transform to digital data storage by having each bowtie serve as a unit bit 1 or 0. By modifying the size of the bowtie, it’s feasible to further improve the storage capacity.”

The team previously demonstrated that pBNAs experience reduced thermal conduction in comparison to standard bowtie nanoantennas and can easily get hot when irradiated by low-powered laser light. Each bowtie antenna is approximately 250 nm across in dimensions, with each supported on 500-nm tall silicon dioxide posts. A consequence of this is that optical illumination results in subtle melting of the gold, and thus a change in the overall optical response. This shows up as a difference in contrast under white-light illumination.

“Our approach is analogous to the method of ‘optical sound,’ which was developed circa 1920s as part of the effort to make ‘talking’ motion pictures,” the team said in its paper. “Although there were variations of this process, they all shared the same basic principle. An audio pickup, e.g., a microphone, electrically modulates a lamp source. Variations in the intensity of the light source is encoded on semi-transparent photographic film (e.g., as variation in area) as the film is spatially translated. Decoding this information is achieved by illuminating the film with the same light source and picking up the changes in the light transmission on an optical detector, which in turn may be connected to speakers. In the work that we present here, the pBNAs serve the role of the photographic film which we can encode with audio information via direct laser writing in an optical microscope.”

In their approach, the researchers record audio signals by using a microscope to scan a sound-modulated laser beam directly on their nanostructures. Retrieval and subsequent playback is achieved by using the same microscope to image the recorded waveform onto a digital camera, whereby simple signal processing can be performed.

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

Plasmon-Assisted Audio Recording by Hao Chen, Abdul M. Bhuiya, Qing Ding, & Kimani C. Toussaint, Jr. Scientific Reports 5, Article number: 9125 doi:10.1038/srep09125 Published 16 March 2015

This is an open access paper and here is a sample recording courtesy of the researchers and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign,

#MuseumWeek starts March 23, 2015

For the second year in a row museums from all over the world are going to be meeting for a week long programme via Twitter hashtag #MuseumWeek. A March 20, 2015 news item on describes the event,

The Louvre, New York’s MoMA, the National Gallery of Australia, the Tokyo National Museum, Shakespeare’s Globe in Britain and more than 1,400 [1800 as of March 19, 2015 Pacific Timezone] other museums around the world are coming to Twitter next week.

From Monday, art institutions in 50 countries will be tweeting under the hashtag #MuseumWeek to publicise their collections and to highlight reactions, the US-based social network said in a statement.

French museum officials backed by Twitter and the French culture ministry are steering the week-long event, which seeks to engage with Twitter users worldwide.

A March 12, 2015 report on the press conference, ,which can be found on the #MuseumWeekwebsite noted this,

On Thursday 5th March 2015 at 5 pm, a press conference was held for the launch of the second #MuseumWeek in the Salon des Maréchaux at the Ministry of Culture and Communication. Present were the Minister, Fleur Pellerin, and Dick Costolo, CEO of Twitter.

Benjamin Benita (Universcience), Coordinator of #MuseumWeek 2015, presented its main concepts: the 7 days, 7 themes and 7 hashtags that can be found here. He also spoke about the event’s mode of governance: a steering committee made up of French museum professionals, accompanied by Mar Dixon and backed by Twitter and the French Ministry of Culture and Communication. He reminded all those present of this #MuseumWeek’s dual ambition: to roll out the operation all over the world and attract an even wider public. We are delighted to be able to announce that #MuseumWeek 2015 has already attracted 1,000 participating institutions in 44 countries! The list of participants can be found here.

Innovatory initiatives

Finally, the great innovation of this second #MuseumWeek, new initiatives were presented: a time capsule that will store all the tweets and be kept by the Cité des sciences et de l’industrie, along with a digital work created by the BRIGHT studio and artist Marcin Ignac, based on tweets sent during the operation.This work will be displayed at the Cité de l’architecture & du patrimoine.

There’s a pretty healthy list of Canadian museums and cultural institutions as a March 17, 2015 Global report notes,

Go ahead, tweet a selfie at your favourite museum. It will be encouraged during MuseumWeek, a Twitter event that runs from March 23 to 29.

Inaugurated last year in Europe, the celebration has gone global, with museums around the world planning to tweet about their treasures and inviting visitors to post their own pictures and thoughts on various themes.

More than 55 museums across Canada, large and small, say they will participate, ranging from Science World British Columbia and the Royal Alberta Museum to the Royal Ontario Museum, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and the Army Museum in Halifax Citadel.

The National Gallery of Canada “jumped at the chance” to get involved, gallery director and CEO Marc Mayer said in a press release. He called the event an opportunity to engage with Canadians “in an authentic way that not only educates but celebrates art.”

All of the national Canadian science museums are represented.

You can keep up-to-date with the latest doings for #MuseumWeek here on this temporary Twitter account. If the temporary feed is anything to go by, this will be a multilingual experience.

Dr. Marie D’Iorio (Canada’s National Institute of Nanotechnology and Dr. Theodora Retsina (American Process Inc.) to address Nanotechnology for Renewable Materials 2015 conference

DO NOT POST UNTIL finding a TAPPI news release

A March 17, 2015 news item on Nanowerk announces the keynote speakers for the 2015 TAPPI (Technical Association for the Pulp, Paper, Packaging and Converting Industries) Conference on Nanotechnology for Renewable Materials,

TAPPI announced that Dr. Theodora Retsina, CEO of American Process, Inc. (API) and Dr. Maria D’lorio, Executive Director of the National Institute for Nanotechnology (NINT) and Professor of Physics and Assistant Vice President of Research at the University of Alberta, will be keynote speakers at the 2015 International Conference on Nanotechnology for Renewable Nanomaterials, in Atlanta, Georgia, June 22-25 [2015].

I wonder if there have been criticisms about gender represesantation? From a March 16, 2015 TAPPI press release, which originated the news item,

“We’re very excited to have these distinguished women speak at this year’s conference,” said Sean Ireland, manager of new technologies at Verso Corporation and co-chair of the 2015 conference. “Their knowledge and success in the field is sure to provide insight and information for all attendees.”

Dr. Retsina received a BSc and PhD in Chemical Engineering from Imperial College, University of London and is a licensed professional engineer in the United States. Her career began at Parsons & Whittemore, where she held positions as project engineer, project manager and process manager in various international construction projects. In 1995, she founded API – a company that focuses on value enhancement of the biomass industries through process integration, biorefinery technology applications and value engineering.

Dr. D’Iorio obtained a Ph.D. in solid state physics and worked as a post-doctoral fellow at the IBM Zurich Research Laboratory in Switzerland before returning to Canada to work at the National Research Council. After enjoying eighteen years as a researcher in organic and inorganic nano-electronics , Dr. D’Iorio became Director and subsequently Director-General of NRC’s Institute for Microstructural Sciences (NRC-IMS). She has championed a number of large collaborative programs, in partnership with government departments, industry and academia to accelerate photonics and nanotechnology deployment in the ICT, Construction, and Energy sectors. Dr. D’Iorio has served as the President of the Academy of Science of the Royal Society of Canada and as President of the Canadian Association of Physicists.

The International Conference on Nanotechnology for Renewable Materials is the only event that explores how nanotechnology can transform biomaterials into high-value products that expand and transcend traditional forest products portfolios. Bringing together leading researchers, industry experts, government representatives and other stakeholders from around the world, this event promises a unique, multi-disciplinary look at the rewards of using nanotechnology – from the forest to marketed products.

Whether your focus is new product development, academic study or supplier research, this conference will provide the big picture for unlocking value from this tiny technology.
Join more than 200 delegates from around the world this June in Atlanta. Learn more about TAPPI’s Nanotechnology Division where members support the growth of this emerging technology through various committees and activities.

The 2014 conference was held in Vancouver and mentioned here in a July 9, 2014 post which featured some final statistics and a brief summary of the presentations.

How geckos self-clean, even in dusty environments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This paper is open access.

Disinfectants without chemicals for the food industry

Michael Berger in his March 16, 2015 Nanowerk Spotlight article profiles some very interesting research into replacing chemicals with water nanostructures,

The burden of foodborne diseases worldwide is huge, with serious economic and public health consequences. The CDC [US Centers for Disease Control] estimates that each year in the USA approximately 48 million people get sick, 128,000 get hospitalized and 3,000 die from the consumption of food contaminated with pathogenic microorganisms. The food industry is in search of effective intervention methods that can be applied from ‘farm to fork’ to ensure the safety of the food chain and be consumer and environment friendly at the same time.

In the food industry, chemicals are routinely used to clean and disinfect product contact surfaces as well as the outer surface of the food itself. These chemicals provide a necessary and required step to ensure that the foods produced and consumed are as free as possible from microorganisms that can cause foodborne illness.

Food activists are concerned that some of the chemicals used by the food industry for disinfection can cause health issues for consumers. A prime example is the current discussion in Europe about ‘American chlorine chicken’. …

Berger goes on to highlight the research being conducted at the Harvard T. Chan School of Public Health (Harvard University). The team announced a new technique called Engineered Water Nanostructures (EWNS), which is generated by electrospraying water. The team published this paper in 2014,

A chemical free, nanotechnology-based method for airborne bacterial inactivation using engineered water nanostructures by Georgios Pyrgiotakis, James McDevitt, Andre Bordini, Edgar Diaz, Ramon Molina, Christa Watson, Glen Deloid, Steve Lenard, Natalie Fix, Yosuke Mizuyama, Toshiyuki Yamauchi, Joseph Brain and Philip Demokritou. Environ. Sci.: Nano, 2014,1, 15-26 DOI: 10.1039/C3EN00007A

First published online 28 Nov 2013

This paper is open access.

More recently, the team has proved the efficacy of this technique on stainless steel surfaces and tomatoes. A Feb. 25, 2015 Harvard T. Chan School of Public Health news release provides information about the costs of foodborne diseases and goes on to describe the technique and the latest experiments,

The burden of foodborne diseases worldwide is huge, with serious economic and public health consequences. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Economic Research Service reported in 2014 that foodborne illnesses are costing the economy more than $15.6 billion and about 53,245 Americans visit the hospital annually due to foodborne illnesses. The food industry is in search of effective intervention methods that can be applied form “farm to fork” to ensure the safety of the food chain and be consumer and environment friendly at the same time.

Researchers at the Center for Nanotechnology and Nanotoxicology of the Harvard T. Chan School of Public Health are currently exploring the effectiveness of a nanotechnology based, chemical free, intervention method for the inactivation of foodborne and spoilage microorganisms on fresh produce and on food production surfaces. This method utilizes Engineered Water Nanostructures (EWNS) generated by electrospraying of water. EWNS possess unique properties; they are 25 nm in diameter, remain airborne in indoor conditions for hours, contain Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS), have very strong surface charge (on average 10e/structure) and have the ability to interact and inactivate pathogens by destroying their membrane.

In a study funded by the USDA and just published this week in the premier Environmental Science and Technology journal, the efficacy of these tiny water nanodroplets, in inactivating representative foodborne pathogens such as Escherichia coli, Salmonella enterica and Listeria innocua, on stainless steel surfaces and on tomatoes, was assessed showing significant log reductions in inactivation of select food pathogens. These promising results could open up the gateway for further exploration into the dynamics of this method in the battle against foodborne disease. More importantly this novel, chemical-free, cost effective and environmentally friendly intervention method holds great potential for development and application in the food industry, as a ‘green’ alternative to existing inactivation methods.

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

Inactivation of Foodborne Microorganisms Using Engineered Water Nanostructures (EWNS) by Georgios Pyrgiotakis, Archana Vasanthakumar, Ya Gao, Mary Eleftheriadou, Eduardo Toledo, Alice DeAraujo, James McDevitt, Taewon Han, Gediminas Mainelis, Ralph Mitchell, and Philip Demokritou. Environ. Sci. Technol., Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/es505868a Publication Date (Web): February 19, 2015

Copyright © 2015 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall. The researchers have made this image illustrating a ‘water shell’s’ effect on a bacterium located on a tomato,

Courtesy: Researchers and the American Chemical Society

Courtesy: Researchers and the American Chemical Society

I’m not sure how chemical companies are going to feel but this is very exciting news. Still, one has to wonder just how much water this technique would require for full scale adoption and would it be reusable?

Dancing droplets—a mystery solved

I love simple yet profound discoveries like the one described in a March 12, 2015 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

 A puzzling observation, pursued through hundreds of experiments, has led Stanford researchers to a simple yet profound discovery: under certain circumstances, droplets of fluid will move like performers in a dance choreographed by molecular physics.

“These droplets sense one another. They move and interact, almost like living cells,” said Manu Prakash, an assistant professor of bioengineering and senior author of an article published in Nature (“Vapour-mediated sensing and motility in two-component droplets”).

A March 11, 2015 Stanford University news release by Tom Abate, which originated the news item, describes possible applications and the genesis of this research,

The unexpected findings may prove useful in semiconductor manufacturing and self-cleaning solar panels, but what truly excites Prakash is that the discovery resulted from years of persistent effort to satisfy a scientific curiosity.

The research began in 2009 when Nate Cira, then an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin, was doing an unrelated experiment. In the course of that experiment Cira deposited several droplets of food coloring onto a sterilized glass slide and was astonished when they began to move.

Here’s a video of the researchers discussing their work and their findings (Video by Kurt Hickman),

The news release elaborates,

Together they spent three years performing increasingly refined experiments to learn how these tiny droplets of food coloring sense one another and move. In living cells these processes of sensing and motility are known as chemotaxis.

“We’ve discovered how droplets can exhibit behaviors akin to artificial chemotaxis,” Prakash said.

As the Nature article explains, the critical fact was that food coloring is a two-component fluid. In such fluids, two different chemical compounds coexist while retaining separate molecular identities

The droplets in this experiment consisted of two molecular compounds found naturally in food coloring: water and propylene glycol.

The researchers discovered how the dynamic interactions of these two molecular components enabled inanimate droplets to mimic some of the behaviors of living cells.

Surface tension and evaporation

Essentially, the droplets danced because of a delicate balance between surface tension and evaporation.

Evaporation is easily understood. On the surface of any liquid, some molecules convert to a gaseous state and float away.

Surface tension is what causes liquids to bead up. It arises from how tightly the molecules in a liquid bind together.

Water evaporates more quickly than propylene glycol. Water also has a higher surface tension.  These differences create a tornado-like flow inside the droplets, which not only allows them to move but also allows a single droplet to sense its neighbors.

To understand the molecular forces involved, imagine shrinking down to size and diving inside a droplet.

There, water and propylene glycol molecules try to remain evenly distributed but differences in evaporation and surface tension create turmoil within the droplet.

On the curved dome of each droplet, water molecules become gaseous and float away faster than their evaporation-averse propylene glycol neighbors.

This evaporation happens more readily on the thin lower edges of the domed droplet, leaving excess of propylene glycol there. Meanwhile, the peak of the dome has a higher concentration of water.

The water at the top exerts its higher surface tension to pull the droplet tight so it doesn’t flatten out. This tugging causes a tumbling molecular motion inside the droplet. Thus surface tension gets the droplet ready to roll.

Evaporation determines the direction of that motion. Each droplet sends aloft gaseous molecules of water like a radially emanating signal announcing the exact location of any given droplet. The droplets converge where the signal is strongest.

So evaporation provided the sensing mechanism and surface tension the pull to move droplets together in what seemed to the eye to be a careful dance.

Rule for two-component fluids

The researchers experimented with varied proportions of water and propylene glycol. Droplets that were 1 percent propylene glycol (PG) to 99 percent water exhibited much the same behavior as droplets that were two-thirds PG to just one-third water.

Based on these experiments the paper describes a “universal rule” to identify any two-component fluids that will demonstrate sensing and motility.

Adding colors to the mixtures made it easier to tell how the droplets of different concentrations behaved and created some visually striking results.

In one experiment, a droplet with more propylene glycol seems to chase a droplet with more water. In actuality, the droplet with more water exerts a higher surface tension tug, pulling the propylene droplet along.

In another experiment, researchers showed how physically separated droplets could align themselves using ever-so-slight signals of evaporation.

In a third experiment they used Sharpie pens to draw black lines on glass slides. The lines changed the surface of the slide and created a series of catch basins. The researchers filled each basin with fluids of different concentrations to create a self-sorting mechanism. Droplets bounced from reservoir to reservoir until they sensed the fluid that matched their concentration and merged with that pool.

What started as a curiosity-driven project may also have many practical implications.

The deep physical understanding of two component fluids allows the researchers to predict which fluids and surfaces will show these unusual effects. The effect is present on a large number of common surfaces and can be replicated with a number of chemical compounds.

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

Vapour-mediated sensing and motility in two-component droplets by N. J. Cira, A. Benusiglio, & M. Prakash. Nature  (2015) doi:10.1038/nature14272 Published online 11 March 2015

This paper is behind a paywall.

Carbon nanotube commercialization report from the US National Nanotechnology Initiative

Apparently a workshop on the topic commercializing carbon nanotubes was held in Washington, DC. in Sept. 2014. A March 12, 2015 news item on Nanowerk (originated by  March 12, 2015 US National Nanotechnology Initiative news release on EurekAlert) announces the outcome of that workshop (Note: Links have been removed),

The National Nanotechnology Initiative today published the proceedings of a technical interchange meeting on “Realizing the Promise of Carbon Nanotubes: Challenges, Opportunities, and the Pathway to Commercialization” (pdf), held at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Headquarters on September 15, 2014. This meeting brought together some of the Nation’s leading experts in carbon nanotube materials to identify, discuss, and report on technical barriers to the production of carbon nanotube (CNT)-based bulk and composite materials with properties that more closely match those of individual CNTs and to explore ways to overcome these barriers.

The outcomes of this meeting, as detailed in this report, will help inform the future directions of the NNI Nanotechnology Signature Initiative “Sustainable Nanomanufacturing: Creating the Industries of the Future”, which was launched in 2010 to accelerate the development of industrial-scale methods for manufacturing functional nanoscale systems.

The Technical Interchange Proceedings ‘Realizing the Promise of Carbon Nanotubes: Challenges, Opportunities, and the Pathway to Commercialization‘ (30 pp. PDF) describes areas for improvement in its executive summary,

A number of common themes and areas requiring focused attention were identified:

● Increased efforts devoted to manufacturing, quality control, and scale-up are needed. The development of a robust supply of CNT bulk materials with well-controlled properties would greatly enhance commercialization and spur use in a broad range of applications.
● Improvements are needed in the mechanical and electrical properties of CNT-based bulk materials (composites, sheets, and fibers) to approach the properties of individual CNTs. The development of bulk materials with properties nearing ideal CNT values would accelerate widespread adoption of these materials.
● More effective use of simulation and modeling is needed to provide insight into the fundamentals of the CNT growth process. Theoretical insight into the fundamentals of the growth process will inform the development of processes capable of producing high-quality material in quantity.
● Work is needed to help develop an understanding of the properties of bulk CNT-containing materials at longer length scales. Longer length scale understanding will enable the development of predictive models of structure–process–properties relationships and structural design technology tailored to take advantage of CNT properties.
● Standard materials and protocols are needed to guide the testing of CNT-based products for commercial applications. Advances in measurement methods are also required to characterize bulk CNT material properties and to understand the mechanism(s) of failure to help ensure material reliability.
● Life cycle assessments are needed for gauging commercial readiness. Life cycle assessments should include energy usage, performance lifetime, and degradation or disposal of CNT-based products.
● Collaboration to leverage resources and expertise is needed to advance commercialization of CNT-based products. Coordinated, focused efforts across academia, government laboratories, and industry to target grand challenges with support from public–private partnerships would accelerate efforts to provide solutions to overcome these technical barriers.

This meeting identified a number of the technical barriers that need to be overcome to make the promise of carbon nanotubes a reality. A more concerted effort is needed to focus R&D activities towards addressing these barriers and accelerating commercialization. The outcomes from this meeting will inform the future directions of the NNI Nanomanufacturing Signature Initiative and provide specific areas that warrant broader focus in the CNT research community. [p. vii print; p. 9 PDF]

This report, in its final section, explains the basis for the interest in and the hopes for carbon nanotubes,

Improving the electrical and mechanical properties of bulk carbon nanotube materials (yarns, fibers, wires, sheets, and composites) to more closely match those of individual carbon nanotubes will enable a revolution in materials that will have a broad impact on U.S. industries, global competitiveness, and the environment. Use of composites reinforced with high-strength carbon nanotube fibers in terrestrial and air transportation vehicles could enable a 25% reduction in their overall weight, reduce U.S. oil consumption by nearly 6 million barrels per day by 2035 [42], and reduce worldwide consumption of petroleum and other liquid fuels by 25%. This would result in the reduction of CO2 emissions by as much as 3.75 billion metric tons per year. Use of carbon nanotube-based data and power cables would lead to further reductions in vehicle weight, fuel consumption, and CO2 emissions. For example, replacement of the copper wiring in a Boeing 777 with CNT data and power cables that are 50% lighter would enable a 2,000-pound reduction in airplane weight. Use of carbon nanotube wiring in power distribution lines would reduce transmission losses by approximately 41 billion kilowatt hours annually [42], leading to significant savings in coal and gas consumption and reductions in the electric power industry’s carbon footprint.

The impact of developing these materials on U.S. global competitiveness is also significant. For example, global demand for carbon fibers is expected to grow from 46,000 metric tons per year in 2011 to more than 153,000 metric tons in 2020 due to the exponential growth in the use of composites in commercial aircraft, automobiles, aerospace, and wind energy [43]. Ultrahigh-strength CNT fibers would be highly attractive in each of these applications because they offer the advantage of reduced weight and improved performance over conventional carbon fibers. [p. 10 print; p. 20 PDF]

As these things go, this is a very short document, which makes it a fast read, and it has a reference list, something I always find useful.

My colleague, Dexter Johnson in a March 17, 2015 posting on his Nanoclast blog (on the IEEE [Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers] website) provides some background information before launching into an analysis of the report’s recommendations (Note: Links have been removed),

In the last half-a-decade we have witnessed once-beloved carbon nanotubes (CNTs) slowly being eclipsed by graphene as the “wonder material” of the nanomaterial universe.

This changing of the guard has occurred primarily within the research community, where the amount of papers being published about graphene seems to be steadily increasing. But in terms of commercial development, CNTs still have a leg up on graphene, finding increasing use in creating light but strong composites. Nonetheless, the commercial prospects for CNTs have been taking hits recently, with some producers scaling down capacity because of lack of demand.

With this as the backdrop, the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), famous for its estimate back in 2001 that the market for nanotechnology will be worth $1 trillion by 2015,  has released a report based on a meeting held last September. …

I recommend reading Dexter’s analysis.