Tag Archives: Australia

Nanotechnology in the house; a guide to what you already have

A July 4, 2016 essay by Cameron Shearer of Flinders University (Australia) on The Conversation website describes how nanotechnology can be found in our homes (Note: Links have been removed),

All kitchens have a sink, most of which are fitted with a water filter. This filter removes microbes and compounds that can give water a bad taste.

Common filter materials are activated carbon and silver nanoparticles.

Activated carbon is a special kind of carbon that’s made to have a very high surface area. This is achieved by milling it down to a very small size. Its high surface area gives more room for unwanted compounds to stick to it, removing them from water.

The antimicrobial properties of silver makes it one of the most common nanomaterials today. Silver nanoparticles kill algae and bacteria by releasing silver ions (single silver atoms) that enter into the cell wall of the organisms and become toxic.

It is so effective and fashionable that silver nanoparticles are now used to coat cutlery, surfaces, fridges, door handles, pet bowls and almost anywhere else microorganisms are unwanted.

Other nanoparticles are used to prepare heat-resistant and self-cleaning surfaces, such as floors and benchtops. By applying a thin coating containing silicon dioxide or titanium dioxide nanoparticles, a surface can become water repelling, which prevents stains (similar to how scotch guard protects fabrics).

Nanoparticle films can be so thin that they can’t be seen. The materials also have very poor heat conductivity, which means they are heat resistant.

The kitchen sink (or dishwasher) is used for washing dishes with the aid of detergents. Detergents form nanoparticles called micelles.

A micelle is formed when detergent molecules self-assemble into a sphere. The centre of this sphere is chemically similar to grease, oils and fats, which are what you want to wash off. The detergent traps oils and fats within the cavity of the sphere to separate them from water and aid dish washing.

Your medicine cabinet may include nanotechnology similar to micelles, with many pharmaceuticals using liposomes.

A liposome is an extended micelle where there is an extra interior cavity within the sphere. Making liposomes from tailored molecules allows them to carry therapeutics inside; the outside of the nanoparticle can be made to target a specific area of the body.

Shearer’s essay goes on to cover the laundry, bathroom, closets, and garage. (h/t July 5, 2016 news item on phys.org)

International nano news bits: Belarus and Vietnam

I have two nano news bits, one concerning Belarus and the other concerning Vietnam.

Belarus

From a June 21, 2016 news item on Belarus News,

In the current five-year term Belarus will put efforts into developing robot technology, nano and biotechnologies, medical industry and a number of other branches of the national economy that can make innovative products, BelTA learned from Belarusian Economy Minister Vladimir Zinovsky on 21 June [2016].

The Minister underlined that the creation of new kinds of products, the development of conventional industries will produce their own results in economy and will allow securing a GDP growth rate as high as 112-115% in the current five-year term.

The last time Belarus was mentioned here was in a June 24, 2014 posting (scroll down about 25% of the way to see Belarus mentioned) about the European Union’s Graphene Flagship programme and new partners in the project. There was also a March 6, 2013 posting about Belarus and a nanotechnology partnership with Indonesia. (There are other mentions but those are the most recent.)

Vietnam

Vietnam has put into operation its first bio-nano production plant. From a June 21, 2016 news item on vietnamnet,

The Vietlife biological nano-plant was officially put into operation on June 20 [2016] at the North Thang Long Industrial Park in Hanoi.

It is the first plant producing biological nano-products developed entirely by Vietnamese scientists with a successful combination of traditional medicine, nanotechnology and modern drugs.

At the inauguration, Professor, Academician Nguyen Van Hieu, former president of Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology, who is the first to bring nanotechnology to Vietnam, reviewed the milestones of nanotechnology around the world and in the country.

In 2000, former US President Bill Clinton proposed American scientists research and develop nanotechnology for the first time.

Japan and the Republic of Korea then began developing the new technology.

Just two years later, in 2002, Vietnamese scientists also recommended research on nanotechnology and got the approval from the Party and State.

Academician Hieu said that Vietnam does not currently use nanotechnology to manufacture flat-screen TVs or smartphones. However, in Southeast Asia Vietnam has pioneered the research and successful applications of nanotechnology in production of probiotics combined with traditional medicine in health care, opening up a new potential science research in Vietnam.

Cam Ha JSC and scientists at the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology have co-operated with a number of laboratories in the US, Australia and Japan to study and successfully develop a bio-nano production line in sync with diverse technologies.

Vietlife is the first plant to combine traditional medicine with nanotechnology and modern medicine. It consists of three technological lines: NANO MICELLE No. 1, 2 and 3; a NANO SOL-GEL chain; a packaging line, and a bio-nano research centre.

Nghia [Prof. Dr. Nguyen Duc Nghia, former deputy director of the Chemistry Institute under the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology] said the factory has successfully produced some typical bio products, including Nanocurcumin NDN22+ from Vietnamese turmeric by nano micelle and Nano Sol-Gel methods. Preclinical experiment results indicate that at a concentration of about 40ppm, NDN22+ solution can kill 100% of rectum cancer tumors and prostate tumor cells within 72 hours. [emphasis mine]

In addition, it also manufactures other bio-nano products like Nanorutin from luscious trees and Nanolycopen from gac (Momordica cochinchinensis) oil.

Unfortunately, this news item does not include links to the research supporting the claims regarding nanocurcumin NDN22+. Hopefully, I will stumble across it soon.

Luminescent upconversion nanoparticles could make imaging more efficient

Researchers at the University of Adelaide (Australia) have found a way to embed luminiscent nanoparticles in glass, according to a June 8, 2016 news item on Nanotechnology,

This new “hybrid glass” successfully combines the properties of these special luminescent (or light-emitting) nanoparticles with the well-known aspects of glass, such as transparency and the ability to be processed into various shapes including very fine optical fibres.

The research, in collaboration with Macquarie University and University of Melbourne, has been published online in the journal Advanced Optical Materials.

A June 7, 2016 University of Adelaide press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, offers more detail,

“These novel luminescent nanoparticles, called upconversion nanoparticles, have become promising candidates for a whole variety of ultra-high tech applications such as biological sensing, biomedical imaging and 3D volumetric displays,” says lead author Dr Tim Zhao, from the University of Adelaide’s School of Physical Sciences and Institute for Photonics and Advanced Sensing (IPAS).

“Integrating these nanoparticles into glass, which is usually inert, opens up exciting possibilities for new hybrid materials and devices that can take advantage of the properties of nanoparticles in ways we haven’t been able to do before. For example, neuroscientists currently use dye injected into the brain and lasers to be able to guide a glass pipette to the site they are interested in. If fluorescent nanoparticles were embedded in the glass pipettes, the unique luminescence of the hybrid glass could act like a torch to guide the pipette directly to the individual neurons of interest.”

Although this method was developed with upconversion nanoparticles, the researchers believe their new ‘direct-doping’ approach can be generalised to other nanoparticles with interesting photonic, electronic and magnetic properties. There will be many applications – depending on the properties of the nanoparticle.

“If we infuse glass with a nanoparticle that is sensitive to radiation and then draw that hybrid glass into a fibre, we could have a remote sensor suitable for nuclear facilities,” says Dr Zhao.

To date, the method used to integrate upconversion nanoparticles into glass has relied on the in-situ growth of the nanoparticles within the glass.

“We’ve seen remarkable progress in this area but the control over the nanoparticles and the glass compositions has been limited, restricting the development of many proposed applications,” says project leader Professor Heike Ebendorff-Heideprem, Deputy Director of IPAS.

“With our new direct doping method, which involves synthesizing the nanoparticles and glass separately and then combining them using the right conditions, we’ve been able to keep the nanoparticles intact and well dispersed throughout the glass. The nanoparticles remain functional and the glass transparency is still very close to its original quality. We are heading towards a whole new world of hybrid glass and devices for light-based technologies.”

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

Upconversion Nanocrystal-Doped Glass: A New Paradigm for Photonic Materials by Jiangbo Zhao, Xianlin Zheng, Erik P. Schartner, Paul Ionescu, Run Zhang, Tich-Lam Nguyen, Dayong Jin, and Heike Ebendorff-Heidepriem. Advanced Optical Materials DOI: 10.1002/adom.201600296 Version of Record online: 30 MAY 2016

© 2016 WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

This paper is behind a paywall.

The Canadian nano scene as seen by the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development)

I’ve grumbled more than once or twice about the seemingly secret society that is Canada’s nanotechnology effort (especially health, safety, and environment issues) and the fact that I get most my information from Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) documents. That said, thank you to Lynne Bergeson’s April 8, 2016 post on Nanotechnology Now for directions to the latest OECD nano document,

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development recently posted a March 29, 2016, report entitled Developments in Delegations on the Safety of Manufactured Nanomaterials — Tour de Table. … The report compiles information, provided by Working Party on Manufactured Nanomaterials (WPMN) participating delegations, before and after the November 2015 WPMN meeting, on current developments on the safety of manufactured nanomaterials.

It’s an international roundup that includes: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Germany, Japan, Korea, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Turkey, United Kingdom, U.S., and the European Commission (EC), as well as the Business and Industry Advisory Committee to the OECD (BIAC) and International Council on Animal Protection in OECD Programs (ICAPO).

As usual, I’m focusing on Canada. From the DEVELOPMENTS IN DELEGATIONS ON THE SAFETY OF MANUFACTURED NANOMATERIALS – TOUR DE TABLE Series on the Safety of Manufactured Nanomaterials No. 67,

CANADA
National  developments  on  human  health  and  environmental  safety  including  recommendations, definitions, or discussions related to adapting or applying existing regulatory systems or the drafting of new laws/ regulations/amendments/guidance materials A consultation document on a Proposed Approach to Address Nanoscale Forms of Substances on the Domestic  Substances  List was  published  with  a  public  comment  period  ending on  May  17,  2015. The proposed approach outlines the Government’s plan to address nanomaterials considered in commerce in Canada (on  Canada’s  public inventory).  The  proposal is a stepwise  approach to  acquire  and  evaluate information,  followed  by  any  necessary  action. A  follow-up  stakeholder  workshop  is  being  planned  to discuss  next  steps  and  possible  approaches  to prioritize  future  activities. The  consultation document  is available at: http://www.ec.gc.ca/lcpe-cepa/default.asp?lang=En&n=1D804F45-1

A mandatory information gathering survey was published on July 25, 2015. The purpose of the survey is to collect information to determine the commercialstatus of certain nanomaterials in Canada. The survey targets  206  substances  considered  to  be  potentially  in commerce  at  the  nanoscale. The  list  of  206 substances was developed using outcomes from the Canada-United States Regulatory Cooperation Council (RCC)  Nanotechnology  Initiative  to  identify nanomaterial  types. These  nanomaterial  types  were  cross-referenced  with  the Domestic  Substances  List to  develop  a  preliminary  list  of  substances  which are potentially intentionally manufactured at the nanoscale. The focus of the survey aligns with the Proposed Approach to  Address  Nanoscale  Forms  of  Substances  on  the Domestic  Substances  List (see  above)  and certain  types  of  nanomaterials  were  excluded  during the  development  of  the  list  of  substances. The information  being  requested  by  the  survey  includes substance  identification,  volumes,  and  uses.  This information will feed into the Government’s proposed approach to address nanomaterials on the Domestic Substances List. Available at: http://gazette.gc.ca/rp-pr/p1/2015/2015-07-25/html/notice-avis-eng.php

Information on:

a.risk  assessment  decisions, including  the  type  of:  (a)  nanomaterials  assessed; (b) testing recommended; and (c) outcomes of the assessment;

Four substances were notified to the program since the WPMN14 – three surface modified substances and  one  inorganic  substance.  No  actions,  including  additional  data requests,  were  taken  due  to  low expected  exposures  in  accordance  with  the New  Substances  Notifications  Regulations  (Chemicals and Polymers) (NSNR) for two of the substances.  Two of the substances notified were subject to a Significant New Activity Notice. A Significant New Activity notice is an information gathering tool used to require submission  of  additional  information  if  it  is suspected  that  a  significant  new  activity  may  result in  the substance becoming toxic under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999.

b.Proposals, or modifications to previous regulatory decisions

As  part  of  the  Government’s  Chemicals  Management Plan,  a  review  is  being  undertaken  for  all substances  which  have  been  controlled through  Significant  New  Activity  (SNAc)  notices (see  above).  As part  of  this  activity,  the  Government  is  reviewing past  nanomaterials  SNAc  notices  to  see  if  new information  is  available  to  refine  the  scope  and information  requirements.    As  a  result  of  this  review, 9 SNAc  notices  previously  in  place  for  nanomaterials have  been  rescinded.    This  work  is  ongoing,  and  a complete review of all nanomaterial SNAcs is currently planned to be completed in 2016.

Information related to good practice documents

The Canada-led,  ISO  standards project, ISO/DTR  19716 Nanotechnologies — Characterization  of cellulose  nanocrystals, [emphasis mine] initiated  in  April 2014, is  now at Committee  Draft  (CD)  3-month  ISO ballot, closing    Aug 31, 2015. Ballot comments will be addressed during JWG2 Measurement and Characterization working  group meetings  at  the 18th Plenary  of  ISO/TC229, Nanotechnologies,  being held in Edmonton, Alberta, Sep. 28 – Oct. 2, 2015.

Research   programmes   or   strategies   designed   to  address   human   health   and/   or environmental safety aspects of nanomaterials

Scientific research

Environment Canada continues to support various academic and departmental research projects. This research has to date included studying fate and effects of nanomaterials in the aquatic, sediment, soil, and air  compartments. Funding  in  fiscal  2015-16  continues  to  support  such  projects,  including  sub-surface transportation, determining key physical-chemical parameters to predict ecotoxicity, and impacts of nano-silver [silver nanoparticles]  addition  to  a  whole  lake  ecosystem [Experimental Lakes Area?]. Environment  Canada  has  also  partnered  with  the National Research  Council  of  Canada  recently  to  initiate  a project  on  the  development  of  test  methods  to identify surfaces of nanomaterials for the purposes of regulatory identification and to support risk assessments. In addition,  Environment  Canada  is  working  with  academic laboratories in  Canada  and  Germany  to  prepare guidance to support testing of nanoparticles using the OECD Test Guideline for soil column leaching.

Health  Canada  continues  its  research  efforts  to  investigate  the  effects  of  surface-modified  silica nanoparticles. The   aims   of   these   projects   are  to:   (1) study the importance of size and surface functionalization;  and  (2)  provide a genotoxic profile and  to  identify  mechanistic  relationships  of  particle properties  to  elicited  toxic  responses.  A manuscript reporting  the in  vitro genotoxic,  cytotoxic and transcriptomic  responses  following  exposure  to  silica  nanoparticles  has  recently  been  submitted to  a  peer reviewed journal and is currently undergoing review. Additional manuscripts reporting the toxicity results obtained to date are in preparation.

Information on public/stakeholder consultations;

A consultation document on a Proposed Approach to Address Nanoscale Forms of Substances on the Domestic  Substances  List was  published  with a  public  comment  period ending  on May  17,  2015  (see Question  1).  Comments  were  received  from approximately  20  stakeholders  representing  industry and industry  associations,  as  well  as  non-governmental  organizations. These  comments  will  inform  decision making to address nanomaterials in commerce in Canada.

Information on research or strategies on life cycle aspects of nanomaterials

Canada, along with Government agencies in the United States, Non-Governmental Organizations and Industry,  is  engaged  in  a  project  to  look  at releases  of  nanomaterials  from  industrial  consumer  matrices (e.g., coatings). The objectives of the NanoRelease Consumer Products project are to develop protocols or
methods (validated  through  interlaboratory  testing) to  measure  releases  of  nanomaterials  from  solid matrices as a result of expected uses along the material life cycle for consumer products that contain the nanomaterials. The  project  is  currently  in  the  advanced  stages  of Phase  3  (Interlaboratory  Studies).  The objectives of Phase 3 of the project are to develop robust methods for producing and collecting samples of CNT-epoxy  and  CNT-rubber  materials  under  abrasion  and  weathering scenarios,  and  to  detect  and quantify, to the extent possible, CNT release fractions. Selected laboratories in the US, Canada, Korea and the European Community are finalising the generation and analysis of sanding and weathering samples and the    results    are    being    collected    in    a   data    hub    for    further    interpretation    and    analysis.

Additional details about the project can be found at the project website: http://www.ilsi.org/ResearchFoundation/RSIA/Pages/NanoRelease1.aspx

Under the OECD Working Party on Resource Productivity and Waste (WPRPW), the expert group on waste containing nanomaterials has developed four reflection papers on the fate of nanomaterials in waste treatment  operations.  Canada  prepared the  paper  on  the  fate  of  nanomaterials in  landfills;  Switzerland on the  recycling  of  waste  containing  nanomaterials;  Germany  on  the  incineration  of  waste  containing nanomaterials;  and  France  on  nanomaterials  in wastewater  treatment.  The  purpose  of  these  papers is to provide  an  overview  of  the  existing  knowledge  on the  behaviour  of  nanomaterials  during  disposal operations and identify the information gaps. At the fourth meeting of the WPRPW that took place on 12-14 November 2013, three of the four reflection papers were considered by members. Canada’s paper was presented and discussed at the fifth meeting of the WPRPRW that took place on 8-10 December 2014. The four  papers  were  declassified  by  EPOC  in  June  2015, and  an  introductory  chapter  was  prepared  to  draw these  papers  together. The introductory  chapter  and accompanying  papers  will  be  published in  Fall  2015. At  the sixth  meeting  of  the  WPRPW  in  June – July  2015,  the  Secretariat  presented  a  proposal  for an information-sharing  platform  that  would  allow  delegates  to  share research  and  documents  related  to nanomaterials. During a trial phase, delegates will be asked to use the platform and provide feedback on its use at the next meeting of the WPRPW in December 2015. This information-sharing platform will also be accessible to delegates of the WPMN.

Information related to exposure measurement and exposure mitigation.

Canada and the Netherlands are co-leading a project on metal impurities in carbon nanotubes. A final version  of  the  report  is  expected  to  be ready for WPMN16. All  research has  been completed (e.g. all components are published or in press and there was a presentation by Pat Rasmussen to SG-08 at the Face-to-Face Meeting in Seoul June 2015). The first draft will be submitted to the SG-08 secretariat in autumn 2015. Revisions  will  be  based  on  early  feedback  from  SG-08  participants.  The  next  steps  depend  on  this feedback and amount of revision required.

Information on past, current or future activities on nanotechnologies that are being done in co-operation with non-OECD countries.

A webinar between ECHA [European Chemicals Agency], the US EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] and Canada was hosted by Canada on April 16, 2015. These are  regularly  scheduled  trilateral  discussions  to keep  each  other  informed  of  activities  in  respective jurisdictions.

In  March 2015, Health  Canada  hosted  3  nanotechnology knowledge  transfer sessions  targeting Canadian  government  research  and  regulatory  communities  working  in  nanotechnology.  These  sessions were  an  opportunity  to  share  information  and perspectives  on  the  current  state  of  science supporting  the regulatory  oversight  of  nanomaterials with  Government.  Presenters  provided  detailed  outputs  from  the OECD WPMN including: updates on OECD test methods and guidance documents; overviews of physical-chemical properties, as well as their relevance to toxicological testing and risk assessment; ecotoxicity and fate   test   methods;   human   health   risk   assessment   and   alternative   testing   strategies;   and exposure measurement  and  mitigation.  Guest  speakers  included  Dr  Richard  C.  Pleus  Managing  Director  and  Director of Intertox, Inc and Dr. Vladimir Murashov Special Assistant on Nanotechnology to the Director of National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

On   March   4-5, 2015, Industry   Canada   and   NanoCanada co-sponsored  “Commercializing Nanotechnology  in  Canada”,  a  national  workshop  that brought  together  representatives  from  industry, academia and government to better align Canada’s efforts in nanotechnology.  This workshop was the first of  its  kind  in  Canada. It  also  marked  the  official  launch  of  NanoCanada (http://nanocanada.com/),  a national  initiative  that  is  bringing  together stakeholders  from  across  Canada  to  bridge  the  innovation  gap and stimulates emerging technology solutions.

It’s nice to get an update about what’s going on. Despite the fact this report was published in 2016 the future tense is used in many of the verbs depicting actions long since accomplished. Maybe this was a cut-and-paste job?

Moving on, I note the mention of the Canada-led,  ISO  standards project, ISO/DTR  19716 Nanotechnologies — Characterization  of cellulose  nanocrystals (CNC). For those not familiar with CNC, the Canadian government has invested hugely in this material derived mainly from trees, in Canada. Other countries and jurisdictions have researched nanocellulose derived from carrots, bananas, pineapples, etc.

Finally, it was interesting to find out about the existence of  NanoCanada. In looking up the Contact Us page, I noticed Marie D’Iorio’s name. D’Iorio, as far as I’m aware, is still the Executive Director for Canada’s National Institute of Nanotechnology (NINT) or here (one of the National Research Council of Canada’s institutes). I have tried many times to interview someone from the NINT (Nils Petersen, the first NINT ED and Martha Piper, a member of the advisory board) and more recently D’Iorio herself only to be be met with a resounding silence. However, there’s a new government in place, so I will try again to find out more about the NINT, and, this time, NanoCanada.

Clothes washers and dryers begone! Nano-enhanced textiles can self-clean

It will be a while yet even it this technique proves to be viable commercially, still, the possibilities tantalize: self-cleaning textiles. A March 22, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily announced research in Australia that may, one day, change your life,

A spot of sunshine is all it could take to get your washing done, thanks to pioneering nano research into self-cleaning textiles.

Researchers at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, have developed a cheap and efficient new way to grow special nanostructures — which can degrade organic matter when exposed to light — directly onto textiles.

The work paves the way towards nano-enhanced textiles that can spontaneously clean themselves of stains and grime simply by being put under a light bulb or worn out in the sun.

A March 22, 2016 RMIT media release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

Dr Rajesh Ramanathan said the process developed by the team had a variety of applications for catalysis-based industries such as agrochemicals, pharmaceuticals and natural products, and could be easily scaled up to industrial levels.

“The advantage of textiles is they already have a 3D structure so they are great at absorbing light, which in turn speeds up the process of degrading organic matter,” he said.

“There’s more work to do to before we can start throwing out our washing machines, but this advance lays a strong foundation for the future development of fully self-cleaning textiles.”

The researchers from the Ian Potter NanoBioSensing Facility and NanoBiotechnology Research Lab at RMIT worked with copper and silver-based nanostructures, which are known for their ability to absorb visible light.

When the nanostructures are exposed to light, they receive an energy boost that creates “hot electrons”. These “hot electrons” release a burst of energy [emphasis mine] that enables the nanostructures to degrade organic matter.

The challenge for researchers has been to bring the concept out of the lab by working out how to build these nanostructures on an industrial scale and permanently attach them to textiles.

The RMIT team’s novel approach was to grow the nanostructures directly onto the textiles by dipping them into a few solutions, resulting in the development of stable nanostructures within 30 minutes.

When exposed to light, it took less than six minutes for some of the nano-enhanced textiles to spontaneously clean themselves.

“Our next step will be to test our nano-enhanced textiles with organic compounds that could be more relevant to consumers, to see how quickly they can handle common stains like tomato sauce or wine,” Ramanathan said.

I wonder if these “hot electrons” mean that when they release “a burst of energy” your clothing will heat up when exposed to light? This image supplied by the researchers does not help to answer the question but it is intriguing,

Caption: Close-up of the nanostructures grown on cotton textiles by RMIT University researchers. Image magnified 150,000 times. Credit: RMIT University

Caption: Close-up of the nanostructures grown on cotton textiles by RMIT University researchers. Image magnified 150,000 times. Credit: RMIT University

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

Robust Nanostructured Silver and Copper Fabrics with Localized Surface Plasmon Resonance Property for Effective Visible Light Induced Reductive Catalysis by Samuel R. Anderson, Mahsa Mohammadtaheri, Dipesh Kumar, Anthony P. O’Mullane, Matthew R. Field, Rajesh Ramanathan, and Vipul Bansal. Advanced Materials Interfaces DOI: 10.1002/admi.201500632 Article first published online: 7 JAN 2016

© 2016 WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

This paper is behind a paywall.

A science communication education program in Australia

Alan Alda (US actor and science communicator) was invited to celebrate the opening of the Australia National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science (CPAS) on Tuesday, March 8, 2016 according to a March 8, 2016 CPAS press release (Note: Links have been removed),

Actor Alan Alda, best known for his starring role in the television series M*A*S*H, opened new facilities for CPAS today [March 8, 2016].

Mr Alda, US Ambassador to Australia his Excellency John Berry, ANU [Australian National University] Vice-Chancellor Professor Brian Schmidt, and CPAS Director Professor Joan Leach opened the new building with speeches in the greenery of University Avenue, followed by ribbon cutting at the new CPAS office.

The opening follows a new partnership agreement between CPAS and the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, based in Stony Brook University’s School of Journalism in the United States.

Mr Alda is a visiting professor in Stony Brook University’s School of Journalism and was a founding member of the Alda Center in 2009. His vision was to teach scientists the skills he had mastered as an actor to help them communicate better with policymakers and the public.

Mr Alda said it was time for CPAS and the Alan Alda Centre to join forces and to start collaborating.

“It couldn’t be better. We both have something to offer the other,” Mr Alda said.

“The Centre here has an extraordinary grasp of the history and theory of science communication. We have in turn innovative ways of teaching the actual skills of communication.

“We have turned many people who are not comfortable facing an audience, or even worse comfortable facing an audience but making an audience uncomfortable facing them, we’ve turned them into master communicators, and they are happy about it and their science is reaching the pubic.”

Professor Schmidt said the new facilities celebrated the partnership between ANU and the Alan Alda Center and he looked forward to seeing the result of the new collaboration.

“CPAS is one of the jewels in the crown of ANU,” Professor Schmidt said.

“The centre is Australia’s oldest and most diverse academic science communication centre, and it was formed in 1996. It took very special people to come up with the vision for CPAS, and its development blazed a trail that has been emulated since by other institutions.”

The event was completed by a two hour workshop for CPAS students and stuff run by Alda Center Associate Director, Dr Christine O’Connell, and Mr Alda. The workshop was the first taste of the collaborative exchange yet to come between the two institutions.

There is a March 10, 2016 interview/chat with Alan Alda by Rod Lambert and Will Grant featuring text and audio files on The Conversation.com (Note: Links have been removed),

Rod: Did you experience any particular kinds of resistance to try to sell this message that scientists should communicate more?

Alan: Ten or 15 years ago, when I began trying to sell this idea, I did get plenty of resistance. I don’t know how many universities I talked to, it was just a handful, but I didn’t get any enthusiasm until I talked to Stony Brook University in New York, and they started the Center for Communicating Science there, which I’m so thrilled is now collaborating with the National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science. It’s like a dream come true, you’re our first international affiliation.

Rod: You’re welcome. Obviously there’s nothing in it for us, we’re just doing this out of the kindness of our hearts (laughs).

Alan: Ha ha ha, well you’ve got all this experience. We’ve got some pretty innovative ideas that we’ve been working on. We kind of use the Stony Brook University setting as our laboratory and we then spread what we’ve learned around the States.

Now we will be sharing it with you and we hope to get your innovations and ideas, and help to share them because we now have the network that’s growing. Every month, it gets a little larger.

We have 17 universities and medical schools and institutions in America that are hooked into this network. We’re going to be sharing all the things, all the creative ideas that come out of each of these places.

That really appeals to me because the people who really want to see communication thrive, the communication of science, they get so enthused about it. It’s hard to get them to stop working night and day on it because you see the results blooming and it makes me very happy.

They also cover Alda’s disinterest in becoming a doctor (ironic given that he’s probably best known for his role as a doctor in the MASH television series) and his presence at the March 9 – 13, 2016 World Science Festival in Brisbane.

For anyone who may recognize the World Science Festival name, it’s the progenitor for this event in Australia (from the World Science Festival in Brisbane About page),

The World Science Festival began in New York in 2008 and is an annual weeklong celebration and exploration of science. Through gripping debates, original theatrical works, interactive explorations, musical performances, intimate salons, and major outdoor experiences, the Festival takes science out of the laboratory and into the streets, parks, museums, galleries and premier performing arts venues of New York City.

The World Science Festival brings together great minds in science and the arts to produce live and digital content that presents the wonders of science and the drama of scientific discovery to a broad general audience. Hailed a “new cultural institution” by the New York Times, the Festival has featured scientific and cultural luminaries including Stephen Hawking, Maggie Gyllenhaal, E.O. Wilson, John Lithgow, Sir Paul Nurse, Glenn Close, Harold Varmus, Yo-Yo Ma, Steven Weinberg, Philip Glass, Eric Lander, Steven Chu, Chuck Close, Richard Leakey, Bobby McFerrin, Sylvia Earle, Anna Deavere Smith, Oliver Sacks, Liev Schreiber, Mary-Claire King, Charlie Kaufman, Bill T. Jones, John Hockenberry, Elizabeth Vargas among many others. The annual Festivals have collectively drawn more than 1.3 million visitors since 2008, and millions more have viewed the programs online.

World Science U is the Foundation’s online education arm where students and lifelong learners can dive more deeply through artfully produced digital education content presented by world-renowned scientists.

The World Science Festival is a production of the World Science Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation headquartered in New York City. The Foundation’s mission is to cultivate a general public informed by science, inspired by its wonder, convinced of its value, and prepared to engage with its implications for the future.

WSF Brisbane

The inaugural World Science Festival Brisbane will bring some of the world’s greatest thought leaders to Queensland, showcase local scientists and performers from around the Asia Pacific region, and host the brightest and the best from previous events in New York.

At the World Science Festival Brisbane, the biggest stars of science will present the beauty, complexity, and importance of science through diverse, multidisciplinary programming that is the World Science Festival signature. The inaugural World Science Festival Brisbane will take place between 9 and 13 March 2016 and is presented by the Queensland Museum.

Queensland Museum is located at South Bank in the heart of Brisbane’s Cultural Precinct, and is the most visited museum in Australia*. Permanent attractions include: the Sciencentre, which offers a wealth of interactive science and technology experiences; the Discovery Centre, the Lost Creatures: Stories from Ancient Queensland Gallery; and the Dandiiri Maiwar Aboriginal and Torres Islander Centre.

The Museum also regularly hosts national and international travelling exhibitions and offers a range of public and educational programs and activities, which attract more than 1 million visitors to the Cultural Precinct each year. Queensland Museum exhibits and stores a significant proportion of the State Collection and houses several research and conservation laboratories.

A little digging resulted in a few more details about this WSF Brisbane undertaking in a Media Kit for the 2016 inaugural event.

Exclusive rights have been granted to the Queensland Museum to present the event in the Asia-Pacific region for the next six years.

The inaugural World Science Festival Brisbane will bring some of the world’s greatest thought leaders  to Queensland, showcase local scientists and performers from around the Asia-Pacific region, and host the brightest and the best from previous events in New York.

The inaugural World Science Festival Brisbane will take place over four days and five nights across the South Bank Cultural Precinct from Wednesday 9 to Sunday 13 March 2016.

More than 100 scientific luminaries from nine countries will gather for the inaugural World Science Festival Brisbane at venues across the Cultural Precinct and South Bank.

Some of science’s brightest stars making special appearances at the festival include Emmy award-winning actor, author, science enthusiast and World Science Festival board member Alan Alda; Nobel Laureatephysicist  Brian Schmidt; pioneering marine biologist Sylvia Earle;  celebrated astronaut Andy Thomas; renowned physicist, best-selling author and festival co-founder Brian Greene, and many more.

Tracy Day, Co-Founder and CEO of the World Science Festival remarked, “By recasting science with art, music and story, we’re shifting science toward the centre of culture. We’re touching all those people  who love the arts but run the other way, when it comes to science.

Over 100 events (free and ticketed) make up the World Science Festival Brisbane program from Wednesday 9 – Sunday 13 March 2016. Highlights include:

• Celebrating the recent 100th Anniversary of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, two premiere performances and a deep dive into the science, impact and unresolved mysteries of Einstein’s most profound discovery:

− Light Falls – a new theatrical work featuring festival co-founder Brian Greene and an ensemble cast; written by Greene and created with composer Jeff Beal (“House of Cards”) and the 2015 Tony-award winning team from 59 Productions (An American in Paris);

− Dear Albert – a reading for the stage written by Alan Alda, featuring Jason Klarwein as Albert Einstein, with Anna McGahan and Christen O’Leary;

− Relativity Since Einstein – an illuminating exploration of Einstein’s ground-breaking insights, moderated by Greene and featuring a line-up of top thinkers in the field.

• Street Science! – a free two-day extravaganza for the whole family featuring everything from live turtle hatching, drones, coding workshops and robot combat to gastronomic demonstrations, taxidermy exhibitions and science-adventure storytelling

• New York Signature Events: The line-up for the inaugural WSF Brisbane includes six Signature Events straight from New York. Provocative, entertaining and accessible, these fast-paced programs explore ground-breaking discoveries, cutting-edge science and the latest technological innovations, guided by leading thinkers from around the world, including:

− Dawn of the Human Age – are we entering a new geological epoch: the Human Age?

 − Alien Life: Will We Know It When We Find It? Scientists across disciplines – astronomers, astrophysicists, and astrobiologists – are intensely studying the evolution of life on Earth and listening for signals from outer space to help identify life in the universe.

− The Moral Math of Robots – Can machines learn right from wrong? As the first generation of driverless cars and battlefield warbots filter into society, scientists are working to develop moral decision-making skills in robots. Break or swerve? Shoot or stand down?

• Diverse and uniquely fascinating events for general audiences and students that showcase scientists, researchers, philosophers, artists, authors, inventors and more, exploring and debating questions about the universe, our changing world, and the role science plays in some of the most urgent issues of our time. Including:

− Can We Save our Reefs in Time? – Global ideas that may help preserve our amazing natural reefs are on the agenda when leading experts discuss revolutionary scientific measures that could assist marine scientists and biologists determine exactly what’s happening to the Great Barrier Reef, and indeed reefs all over the world.

− Chasing Down the Comet – landing a spacecraft on a comet at 40,000 k mph, with scientists from the European Space Agency and NASA who actually did it.

− Catching up with the Jetsons: Cities in 2050 – world renowned scientists, urban planners, and futurists consider the future of the city.

−The Martian film and talk – a once in a lifetime opportunity hear an astronaut and a NASA scientist discuss whether the blockbuster movie gets the science right, with Andy Thomas and Pamela Conrad.

• Salon events that dive deeper into the science of specific topics with informal discussions challenging participants to consider their shared passions from a fresh perspective.

• Hands-on workshops where budding scientists can spend time with working scientists, learning about their fascinating work in fields as diverse as genetics, art conservation, biology, the environment, ichthyology, game design, zoology, palaeontology, robotics and sports engineering.

Congratulations to the organizers for pulling together an exciting programme. BTW, the original World Science Festival will be taking place June 1 – 5, 2016 in New York.

Getting back to CPAS and for anyone interested in it (the only institution that I’ve seen offering science communication degrees for undergraduates, masters, and PhDs), there’s more from their History page,

The roots of CPAS started to grow in the 1980s, when two ANU academics – physicist Dr Mike Gore (now Professor), the founder of Australia’s National Science and Technology Centre, Questacon, and biologist Professor Chris Bryant, then ANU Dean of Science – started up a Graduate Certificate in Science Communication program. They established it as a formal training program and recognised qualification for groups of postgraduate students who had been performing outreach science shows with Questacon since the early 1980s. That program has become the Master of Science Communication Outreach degree, still run by CPAS, which is the host program for the Shell Questacon Science Circus, still run by Questacon.

In 1996 the ANU employed Dr Sue Stocklmayer (now Professor) as a new science communication academic to work full time on developing the program and other science communication teaching and research ventures at the University. It was she who proposed the establishment of a Centre for the Public Awareness of Science. Professor Bryant was the first CPAS Director, but stepped aside in 1998, when Dr Stocklmayer took the reins. She remained the Director until 2015. In 2016, Professor Joan Leach assumed the role of CPAS Director.

The ibis was chosen as the CPAS mascot because it was the totem symbol of the Egyptian god Thoth, God of Science and Wisdom and Scribe of the Gods. The Ibis is also a ubiquitous travelling bird.

The opening ceremony for CPAS was performed by Professor Richard Dawkins, the first Charles Simonyi professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford. After receiving an honorary degree (Hon D Litt) from the University he spent the rest of the afternoon at CPAS, in its old quarters of what is now the Peter Baume Buiding. There he cracked a ceremonial ‘ibis egg’ and mixed with members of the university. Photos of the event can be seen below.

Since its humble origins CPAS has become a world class science communication centre, growing in staff and student numbers, offering science communication education at all levels from undergraduate to PhD, building a comprehensive research program, and engaging in diverse science outreach and policy activities. CPAS staff regularly travel to numerous countries across the world, offering science communication education, training and support to science communicators, science centre staff and science teachers. In 2000 CPAS became an accredited Centre for the Australian National Commission for UNESCO. CPAS also boasts current partnerships with Questacon, Shell Australia, the National University of Singapore, the Government of Vietnam, the Australian Government’s Inspiring Australia program, the Science Communication Research and Education Network, and the Science Circus Africa initiative.

That’s all, folks.

Sinagpore’s new chip could make low-powered wireless neural implants a possibility and Australians develop their own neural implant

Singapore

This research from Singapore could make neuroprosthetics and exoskeletons a little easier to manage as long as you don’t mind having a neural implant. From a Feb. 11, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily,

A versatile chip offers multiple applications in various electronic devices, report researchers, suggested that there is now hope that a low-powered, wireless neural implant may soon be a reality. Neural implants when embedded in the brain can alleviate the debilitating symptoms of Parkinson’s disease or give paraplegic people the ability to move their prosthetic limbs.

Caption: NTU Asst Prof Arindam Basu is holding his low-powered smart chip. Credit: NTU Singapore

Caption: NTU Asst Prof Arindam Basu is holding his low-powered smart chip. Credit: NTU Singapore

A Feb. 11, 2016 Nanyang Technological University (NTU) press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail,

Scientists at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (NTU Singapore) have developed a small smart chip that can be paired with neural implants for efficient wireless transmission of brain signals.

Neural implants when embedded in the brain can alleviate the debilitating symptoms of Parkinson’s disease or give paraplegic people the ability to move their prosthetic limbs.

However, they need to be connected by wires to an external device outside the body. For a prosthetic patient, the neural implant is connected to a computer that decodes the brain signals so the artificial limb can move.

These external wires are not only cumbersome but the permanent openings which allow the wires into the brain increases the risk of infections.

The new chip by NTU scientists can allow the transmission of brain data wirelessly and with high accuracy.

Assistant Professor Arindam Basu from NTU’s School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering said the research team have tested the chip on data recorded from animal models, which showed that it could decode the brain’s signal to the hand and fingers with 95 per cent accuracy.

“What we have developed is a very versatile smart chip that can process data, analyse patterns and spot the difference,” explained Prof Basu.

“It is about a hundred times more efficient than current processing chips on the market. It will lead to more compact medical wearable devices, such as portable ECG monitoring devices and neural implants, since we no longer need large batteries to power them.”

Different from other wireless implants

To achieve high accuracy in decoding brain signals, implants require thousands of channels of raw data. To wirelessly transmit this large amount of data, more power is also needed which means either bigger batteries or more frequent recharging.

This is not feasible as there is limited space in the brain for implants while frequent recharging means the implants cannot be used for long-term recording of signals.

Current wireless implant prototypes thus suffer from a lack of accuracy as they lack the bandwidth to send out thousands of channels of raw data.

Instead of enlarging the power source to support the transmission of raw data, Asst Prof Basu tried to reduce the amount of data that needs to be transmitted.

Designed to be extremely power-efficient, NTU’s patented smart chip will analyse and decode the thousands of signals from the neural implants in the brain, before compressing the results and sending it wirelessly to a small external receiver.

This invention and its findings were published last month [December 2015] in the prestigious journal, IEEE Transactions on Biomedical Circuits & Systems, by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, the world’s largest professional association for the advancement of technology.

Its underlying science was also featured in three international engineering conferences (two in Atlanta, USA and one in China) over the last three months.

Versatile smart chip with multiple uses

This new smart chip is designed to analyse data patterns and spot any abnormal or unusual patterns.

For example, in a remote video camera, the chip can be programmed to send a video back to the servers only when a specific type of car or something out of the ordinary is detected, such as an intruder.

This would be extremely beneficial for the Internet of Things (IOT), where every electrical and electronic device is connected to the Internet through a smart chip.

With a report by marketing research firm Gartner Inc predicting that 6.4 billion smart devices and appliances will be connected to the Internet by 2016, and will rise to 20.8 billion devices by 2020, reducing network traffic will be a priority for most companies.

Using NTU’s new chip, the devices can process and analyse the data on site, before sending back important details in a compressed package, instead of sending the whole data stream. This will reduce data usage by over a thousand times.

Asst Prof Basu is now in talks with Singapore Technologies Electronics Limited to adapt his smart chip that can significantly reduce power consumption and the amount of data transmitted by battery-operated remote sensors, such as video cameras.

The team is also looking to expand the applications of the chip into commercial products, such as to customise it for smart home sensor networks, in collaboration with a local electronics company.

The chip, measuring 5mm by 5mm can now be licensed by companies from NTU’s commercialisation arm, NTUitive.

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

A 128-Channel Extreme Learning Machine-Based Neural Decoder for Brain Machine Interfaces by Yi Chen, Enyi Yao, Arindam Basu. IEEE Transactions on Biomedical Circuits and Systems, 2015; 1 DOI: 10.1109/TBCAS.2015.2483618

This paper is behind a paywall.

Australia

Earlier this month there was a Feb. 9, 2016 announcement about a planned human clinical trial in Australia for a new brain-machine interface (neural implant). Before proceeding with the news, here’s what this implant looks like,

Caption: This tiny device, the size of a small paperclip, is implanted in to a blood vessel next to the brain and can read electrical signals from the motor cortex, the brain's control centre. These signals can then be transmitted to an exoskeleton or wheelchair to give paraplegic patients greater mobility. Users will need to learn how to communicate with their machinery, but over time, it is thought it will become second nature, like driving or playing the piano. The first human trials are slated for 2017 in Melbourne, Australia. Credit: The University of Melbourne.

Caption: This tiny device, the size of a small paperclip, is implanted in to a blood vessel next to the brain and can read electrical signals from the motor cortex, the brain’s control centre. These signals can then be transmitted to an exoskeleton or wheelchair to give paraplegic patients greater mobility. Users will need to learn how to communicate with their machinery, but over time, it is thought it will become second nature, like driving or playing the piano. The first human trials are slated for 2017 in Melbourne, Australia. Credit: The University of Melbourne.

A Feb. 9, 2016 University of Melbourne press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail,

Melbourne medical researchers have created a new minimally invasive brain-machine interface, giving people with spinal cord injuries new hope to walk again with the power of thought.

The brain machine interface consists of a stent-based electrode (stentrode), which is implanted within a blood vessel next to the brain, and records the type of neural activity that has been shown in pre-clinical trials to move limbs through an exoskeleton or to control bionic limbs.

The new device is the size of a small paperclip and will be implanted in the first in-human trial at The Royal Melbourne Hospital in 2017.

The results published today in Nature Biotechnology show the device is capable of recording high-quality signals emitted from the brain’s motor cortex, without the need for open brain surgery.

Principal author and Neurologist at The Royal Melbourne Hospital and Research Fellow at The Florey Institute of Neurosciences and the University of Melbourne, Dr Thomas Oxley, said the stentrode was revolutionary.

“The development of the stentrode has brought together leaders in medical research from The Royal Melbourne Hospital, The University of Melbourne and the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health. In total 39 academic scientists from 16 departments were involved in its development,” Dr Oxley said.

“We have been able to create the world’s only minimally invasive device that is implanted into a blood vessel in the brain via a simple day procedure, avoiding the need for high risk open brain surgery.

“Our vision, through this device, is to return function and mobility to patients with complete paralysis by recording brain activity and converting the acquired signals into electrical commands, which in turn would lead to movement of the limbs through a mobility assist device like an exoskeleton. In essence this a bionic spinal cord.”

Stroke and spinal cord injuries are leading causes of disability, affecting 1 in 50 people. There are 20,000 Australians with spinal cord injuries, with the typical patient a 19-year old male, and about 150,000 Australians left severely disabled after stroke.

Co-principal investigator and biomedical engineer at the University of Melbourne, Dr Nicholas Opie, said the concept was similar to an implantable cardiac pacemaker – electrical interaction with tissue using sensors inserted into a vein, but inside the brain.

“Utilising stent technology, our electrode array self-expands to stick to the inside wall of a vein, enabling us to record local brain activity. By extracting the recorded neural signals, we can use these as commands to control wheelchairs, exoskeletons, prosthetic limbs or computers,” Dr Opie said.

“In our first-in-human trial, that we anticipate will begin within two years, we are hoping to achieve direct brain control of an exoskeleton for three people with paralysis.”

“Currently, exoskeletons are controlled by manual manipulation of a joystick to switch between the various elements of walking – stand, start, stop, turn. The stentrode will be the first device that enables direct thought control of these devices”

Neurophysiologist at The Florey, Professor Clive May, said the data from the pre-clinical study highlighted that the implantation of the device was safe for long-term use.

“Through our pre-clinical study we were able to successfully record brain activity over many months. The quality of recording improved as the device was incorporated into tissue,” Professor May said.

“Our study also showed that it was safe and effective to implant the device via angiography, which is minimally invasive compared with the high risks associated with open brain surgery.

“The brain-computer interface is a revolutionary device that holds the potential to overcome paralysis, by returning mobility and independence to patients affected by various conditions.”

Professor Terry O’Brien, Head of Medicine at Departments of Medicine and Neurology, The Royal Melbourne Hospital and University of Melbourne said the development of the stentrode has been the “holy grail” for research in bionics.

“To be able to create a device that can record brainwave activity over long periods of time, without damaging the brain is an amazing development in modern medicine,” Professor O’Brien said.

“It can also be potentially used in people with a range of diseases aside from spinal cord injury, including epilepsy, Parkinsons and other neurological disorders.”

The development of the minimally invasive stentrode and the subsequent pre-clinical trials to prove its effectiveness could not have been possible without the support from the major funding partners – US Defense Department DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] and Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council.

So, DARPA is helping fund this, eh? Interesting but not a surprise given the agency’s previous investments in brain research and neuroprosthetics.

For those who like to get their news via video,

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

Minimally invasive endovascular stent-electrode array for high-fidelity, chronic recordings of cortical neural activity by Thomas J Oxley, Nicholas L Opie, Sam E John, Gil S Rind, Stephen M Ronayne, Tracey L Wheeler, Jack W Judy, Alan J McDonald, Anthony Dornom, Timothy J H Lovell, Christopher Steward, David J Garrett, Bradford A Moffat, Elaine H Lui, Nawaf Yassi, Bruce C V Campbell, Yan T Wong, Kate E Fox, Ewan S Nurse, Iwan E Bennett, Sébastien H Bauquier, Kishan A Liyanage, Nicole R van der Nagel, Piero Perucca, Arman Ahnood et al. Nature Biotechnology (2016)  doi:10.1038/nbt.3428 Published online 08 February 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.

I wish the researchers in Singapore, Australia, and elsewhere, good luck!

Cambridge University researchers tell us why Spiderman can’t exist while Stanford University proves otherwise

A team of zoology researchers at Cambridge University (UK) find themselves in the unenviable position of having their peer-reviewed study used as a source of unintentional humour. I gather zoologists (Cambridge) and engineers (Stanford) don’t have much opportunity to share information.

A Jan. 18, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily announces the Cambridge research findings,

Latest research reveals why geckos are the largest animals able to scale smooth vertical walls — even larger climbers would require unmanageably large sticky footpads. Scientists estimate that a human would need adhesive pads covering 40% of their body surface in order to walk up a wall like Spiderman, and believe their insights have implications for the feasibility of large-scale, gecko-like adhesives.

A Jan. 18, 2016 Cambridge University press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the research and the thinking that led to the researchers’ conclusions,

Dr David Labonte and his colleagues in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology found that tiny mites use approximately 200 times less of their total body area for adhesive pads than geckos, nature’s largest adhesion-based climbers. And humans? We’d need about 40% of our total body surface, or roughly 80% of our front, to be covered in sticky footpads if we wanted to do a convincing Spiderman impression.

Once an animal is big enough to need a substantial fraction of its body surface to be covered in sticky footpads, the necessary morphological changes would make the evolution of this trait impractical, suggests Labonte.

“If a human, for example, wanted to walk up a wall the way a gecko does, we’d need impractically large sticky feet – our shoes would need to be a European size 145 or a US size 114,” says Walter Federle, senior author also from Cambridge’s Department of Zoology.

The researchers say that these insights into the size limits of sticky footpads could have profound implications for developing large-scale bio-inspired adhesives, which are currently only effective on very small areas.

“As animals increase in size, the amount of body surface area per volume decreases – an ant has a lot of surface area and very little volume, and a blue whale is mostly volume with not much surface area” explains Labonte.

“This poses a problem for larger climbing species because, when they are bigger and heavier, they need more sticking power to be able to adhere to vertical or inverted surfaces, but they have comparatively less body surface available to cover with sticky footpads. This implies that there is a size limit to sticky footpads as an evolutionary solution to climbing – and that turns out to be about the size of a gecko.”

Larger animals have evolved alternative strategies to help them climb, such as claws and toes to grip with.

The researchers compared the weight and footpad size of 225 climbing animal species including insects, frogs, spiders, lizards and even a mammal.

“We compared animals covering more than seven orders of magnitude in weight, which is roughly the same as comparing a cockroach to the weight of Big Ben, for example,” says Labonte.

These investigations also gave the researchers greater insights into how the size of adhesive footpads is influenced and constrained by the animals’ evolutionary history.

“We were looking at vastly different animals – a spider and a gecko are about as different as a human is to an ant- but if you look at their feet, they have remarkably similar footpads,” says Labonte.

“Adhesive pads of climbing animals are a prime example of convergent evolution – where multiple species have independently, through very different evolutionary histories, arrived at the same solution to a problem. When this happens, it’s a clear sign that it must be a very good solution.”

The researchers believe we can learn from these evolutionary solutions in the development of large-scale manmade adhesives.

“Our study emphasises the importance of scaling for animal adhesion, and scaling is also essential for improving the performance of adhesives over much larger areas. There is a lot of interesting work still to do looking into the strategies that animals have developed in order to maintain the ability to scale smooth walls, which would likely also have very useful applications in the development of large-scale, powerful yet controllable adhesives,” says Labonte.

There is one other possible solution to the problem of how to stick when you’re a large animal, and that’s to make your sticky footpads even stickier.

“We noticed that within closely related species pad size was not increasing fast enough to match body size, probably a result of evolutionary constraints. Yet these animals can still stick to walls,” says Christofer Clemente, a co-author from the University of the Sunshine Coast [Australia].

“Within frogs, we found that they have switched to this second option of making pads stickier rather than bigger. It’s remarkable that we see two different evolutionary solutions to the problem of getting big and sticking to walls,” says Clemente.

“Across all species the problem is solved by evolving relatively bigger pads, but this does not seem possible within closely related species, probably since there is not enough morphological diversity to allow it. Instead, within these closely related groups, pads get stickier. This is a great example of evolutionary constraint and innovation.”

A researcher at Stanford University (US) took strong exception to the Cambridge team’s conclusions , from a Jan. 28, 2016 article by Michael Grothaus for Fast Company (Note: A link has been removed),

It seems the dreams of the web-slinger’s fans were crushed forever—that is until a rival university swooped in and saved the day. A team of engineers working with mechanical engineering graduate student Elliot Hawkes at Stanford University have announced [in 2014] that they’ve invented a device called “gecko gloves” that proves the Cambridge researchers wrong.

Hawkes has created a video outlining the nature of his dispute with Cambridge University and US tv talk show host, Stephen Colbert who featured the Cambridge University research in one of his monologues,

To be fair to Hawkes, he does prove his point. A Nov. 21, 2014 Stanford University report by Bjorn Carey describes Hawke’s ingenious ‘sticky pads,

Each handheld gecko pad is covered with 24 adhesive tiles, and each of these is covered with sawtooth-shape polymer structures each 100 micrometers long (about the width of a human hair).

The pads are connected to special degressive springs, which become less stiff the further they are stretched. This characteristic means that when the springs are pulled upon, they apply an identical force to each adhesive tile and cause the sawtooth-like structures to flatten.

“When the pad first touches the surface, only the tips touch, so it’s not sticky,” said co-author Eric Eason, a graduate student in applied physics. “But when the load is applied, and the wedges turn over and come into contact with the surface, that creates the adhesion force.”

As with actual geckos, the adhesives can be “turned” on and off. Simply release the load tension, and the pad loses its stickiness. “It can attach and detach with very little wasted energy,” Eason said.

The ability of the device to scale up controllable adhesion to support large loads makes it attractive for several applications beyond human climbing, said Mark Cutkosky, the Fletcher Jones Chair in the School of Engineering and senior author on the paper.

“Some of the applications we’re thinking of involve manufacturing robots that lift large glass panels or liquid-crystal displays,” Cutkosky said. “We’re also working on a project with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to apply these to the robotic arms of spacecraft that could gently latch on to orbital space debris, such as fuel tanks and solar panels, and move it to an orbital graveyard or pitch it toward Earth to burn up.”

Previous work on synthetic and gecko adhesives showed that adhesive strength decreased as the size increased. In contrast, the engineers have shown that the special springs in their device make it possible to maintain the same adhesive strength at all sizes from a square millimeter to the size of a human hand.

The current version of the device can support about 200 pounds, Hawkes said, but, theoretically, increasing its size by 10 times would allow it to carry almost 2,000 pounds.

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

Human climbing with efficiently scaled gecko-inspired dry adhesives by Elliot W. Hawkes, Eric V. Eason, David L. Christensen, Mark R. Cutkosky. Jurnal of the Royal Society Interface DOI: 10.1098/rsif.2014.0675 Published 19 November 2014

This paper is open access.

To be fair to the Cambridge researchers, It’s stretching it a bit to say that Hawke’s gecko gloves allow someone to be like Spiderman. That’s a very careful, slow climb achieved in a relatively short period of time. Can the human body remain suspended that way for more than a few minutes? How big do your sticky pads have to be if you’re going to have the same wall-climbing ease of movement and staying power of either a gecko or Spiderman?

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

Extreme positive allometry of animal adhesive pads and the size limits of adhesion-based climbing by David Labonte, Christofer J. Clemente, Alex Dittrich, Chi-Yun Kuo, Alfred J. Crosby, Duncan J. Irschick, and Walter Federle. PNAS doi: 10.1073/pnas.1519459113

This paper is behind a paywall but there is an open access preprint version, which may differ from the PNAS version, available,

Extreme positive allometry of animal adhesive pads and the size limits of adhesion-based climbing by David Labonte, Christofer J Clemente, Alex Dittrich, Chi-Yun Kuo, Alfred J Crosby, Duncan J Irschick, Walter Federle. bioRxiv
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1101/033845

I hope that if the Cambridge researchers respond, they will be witty rather than huffy. Finally, there’s this gecko image (which I love) from the Cambridge researchers,

 Caption: This image shows a gecko and ant. Credit: Image courtesy of A Hackmann and D Labonte

Caption: This image shows a gecko and ant. Credit: Image courtesy of A Hackmann and D Labonte

Exceeding the sensitivity of skin with a graphene elastomer

A Jan. 14, 2016 news item on Nanowerk announces the latest in ‘sensitive’ skin,

A new sponge-like material, discovered by Monash [Monash University in Australia] researchers, could have diverse and valuable real-life applications. The new elastomer could be used to create soft, tactile robots to help care for elderly people, perform remote surgical procedures or build highly sensitive prosthetic hands.

Graphene-based cellular elastomer, or G-elastomer, is highly sensitive to pressure and vibrations. Unlike other viscoelastic substances such as polyurethane foam or rubber, G-elastomer bounces back extremely quickly under pressure, despite its exceptionally soft nature. This unique, dynamic response has never been found in existing soft materials, and has excited and intrigued researchers Professor Dan Li and Dr Ling Qiu from the Monash Centre for Atomically Thin Materials (MCATM).

A Jan. 14, 2016 Monash University media release, which originated the news item, offers some insights from the researchers,

According to Dr Qiu, “This graphene elastomer is a flexible, ultra-light material which can detect pressures and vibrations across a broad bandwidth of frequencies. It far exceeds the response range of our skin, and it also has a very fast response time, much faster than conventional polymer elastomer.

“Although we often take it for granted, the pressure sensors in our skin allow us to do things like hold a cup without dropping it, crushing it, or spilling the contents. The sensitivity and response time of G-elastomer could allow a prosthetic hand or a robot to be even more dexterous than a human, while the flexibility could allow us to create next generation flexible electronic devices,” he said.

Professor Li, a director of MCATM, said, ‘Although we are still in the early stages of discovering graphene’s potential, this research is an excellent breakthrough. What we do know is that graphene could have a huge impact on Australia’s economy, both from a resources and innovation perspective, and we’re aiming to be at the forefront of that research and development.’

Dr Qiu’s research has been published in the latest edition of the prestigious journal Advanced Materials and is protected by a suite of patents.

Are they trying to protect the work from competition or wholesale theft of their work?

After all, the idea behind patents and copyrights was to encourage innovation and competition by ensuring that inventors and creators would benefit from their work. An example that comes to mind is the Xerox company which for many years had a monopoly on photocopy machines by virtue of their patent. Once the patent ran out (patents and copyrights were originally intended to be in place for finite time periods) and Xerox had made much, much money, competitors were free to create and market their own photocopy machines, which they did quite promptly. Since those days, companies have worked to extend patent and copyright time periods in efforts to stifle competition.

Getting back to Monash, I do hope the researchers are able to benefit from their work and wish them well. I also hope that they enjoy plenty of healthy competition spurring them onto greater innovation.

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

Ultrafast Dynamic Piezoresistive Response of Graphene-Based Cellular Elastomers by Ling Qiu, M. Bulut Coskun, Yue Tang, Jefferson Z. Liu, Tuncay Alan, Jie Ding, Van-Tan Truong, and Dan Li. Advanced Materials Volume 28, Issue 1 January 6, 2016Pages 194–200 DOI: 10.1002/adma.201503957 First published: 2 November 2015

This paper appears to be open access.

Do you really want to swallow a ‘smart pill’ to measure intestinal gas or anything else?

Caption: Smart gas sensing pills developed at RMIT University can measure intestinal gases inside the gut and send the data directly to a mobile phone. Credit: RMIT University

Caption: Smart gas sensing pills developed at RMIT University can measure intestinal gases inside the gut and send the data directly to a mobile phone.
Credit: RMIT University

Researchers at RMIT University (Australia) have tested a ‘smart pill’ (or sensor/wireless transmitter) on animals according to a Jan. 12, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily,

Researchers have conducted the first ever trials of smart pills that can measure intestinal gases inside the body, with surprising results revealing some unexpected ways that fiber affects the gut.

Intestinal gases have been linked to colon cancer, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), but their role in health is poorly understood and there is currently no easy and reliable tool for detecting them inside the gut.

The first animal trials of smart gas sensing pills developed at Australia’s RMIT University — which can send data from inside the gut directly to a mobile phone — have examined the impact of low and high-fibre diets on intestinal gases and offer new clues for the development of treatments for gut disorders.

Lead investigator Professor Kourosh Kalantar-zadeh, from the Centre for Advanced Electronics and Sensors at RMIT, said the results reversed current assumptions about the effect of fibre on the gut.

A Jan. 12, 2016 RMIT University news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

“We found a low-fibre diet produced four times more hydrogen in the small intestine than a high-fibre diet,” Kalantar-zadeh said.

“This was a complete surprise because hydrogen is produced through fermentation, so we naturally expected more fibre would equal more of this fermentation gas.

“The smart pills allow us to identify precisely where the gases are produced and help us understand the microbial activity in these areas – it’s the first step in demolishing the myths of food effects on our body and replacing those myths with hard facts.

“We hope this technology will in future enable researchers to design personalised diets or drugs that can efficiently target problem areas in the gut, to help the millions of people worldwide that are affected by digestive disorders and diseases.”

The trials revealed different levels of fibre in a diet affected both how much gas was produced and where it was concentrated in the gut – in the stomach, small intestine or large intestine.

The smart pills were trialled on two groups of pigs – whose digestive systems are similar to humans – fed high and low-fibre diets. The results indicate the technology could help doctors differentiate gut disorders such as IBS, showing:

  • high-fibre diets produce more methane gas in the large intestine than the low-fibre diet, suggesting that painful gut gas retention could be avoided by cutting back on high-fibre food
  • low-fibre diets produced four times more hydrogen gas in the small intestine than high-fibre, indicating a high-fibre regimen could be better for patients with IBS caused by bacterial overgrowth in small intestine
  • the ratio of carbon dioxide and methane gases remained the same in the large intestine for both diets, suggesting that neither diet would be helpful for people suffering IBS diseases associated with excess methane concentration

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

Intestinal Gas Capsules: A Proof-of-Concept Demonstration by Kourosh Kalantar-zadeh, Chu K. Yao, Kyle J. Berean, Nam Ha, Jian Zhen Ou, Stephanie A. Ward, Naresh Pillai, Julian Hill, Jeremy J. Cottrell, Frank R. Dunshea, Chris McSweeney, Jane G. Muir, and  Peter R. Gibson. Gastroenterology January 2016Volume 150, Issue 1, Pages 37–39 DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1053/j.gastro.2015.07.072

This article appears to be open access.

Getting back to my question, will people be willing to swallow these things? The study indicates that four pigs, in total, were tested and killed afterwards. The ‘smart pill’ measurements were compared to others made with standard technologies to assure researchers the new technology was viable. This particular study seems to have served as a proof of concept rather than an in-depth analysis of intestinal gases. As to whether or not anyone will ever be asked to swallow one of these ‘smart pills’ (sensor/wireless transmitter), the scientists did not share any plans for human clinical trials. I guess one of the big questions would be, what happens to the pill (stay in your gut or expelled) once you’ve gotten your measurements?