Tag Archives: Australia

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?

Promising new technique for controlled fabrication of nanowires

This research is the result of a collaboration between French, Italian, Australian, and Canadian researchers. From a Jan. 5, 2016 news item on *phys.org,

An international team of researchers including Professor Federico Rosei and members of his group at INRS (Institut national de la recherche scientifique) has developed a new strategy for fabricating atomically controlled carbon nanostructures used in molecular carbon-based electronics. An article just published in the prestigious journal Nature Communications presents their findings: the complete electronic structure of a conjugated organic polymer, and the influence of the substrate on its electronic properties.

A Jan. 5, 2016 INRS news release by Gisèle Bolduc, which originated the news item, indicates this is the beginning rather than an endpoint (Note: A link has been removed),

The researchers combined two procedures previously developed in Professor Rosei’s lab—molecular self-assembly and chain polymerization—to produce a network of long-range poly(para-phenylene) (PPP) nanowires on a copper (Cu) surface. Using advanced technologies such as scanning tunneling microscopy and photoelectron spectroscopy as well as theoretical models, they were able to describe the morphology and electronic structure of these nanostructures.

“We provide a complete description of the band structure and also highlight the strong interaction between the polymer and the substrate, which explains both the decreased bandgap and the metallic nature of the new chains. Even with this hybridization, the PPP bands display a quasi one-dimensional dispersion in conductive polymeric nanowires,” said Professor Federico Rosei, one of the authors of the study.

Although further research is needed to fully describe the electronic properties of these nanostructures, the polymer’s dispersion provides a spectroscopic record of the polymerization process of certain types of molecules on gold, silver, copper, and other surfaces. It’s a promising approach for similar semiconductor studies—an essential step in the development of actual devices.

The results of the study could be used in designing organic nanostructures, with significant potential applications in nanoelectronics, including photovoltaic devices, field-effect transistors, light-emitting diodes, and sensors.

About the article

This study was designed by Yannick Fagot-Revurat and Daniel Malterre of Université de Lorraine/CNRS, Federico Rosei of INRS, Josh Lipton-Duffin of the Institute for Future Environments (Australia), Giorgio Contini of the Italian National Research Council, and Dmytro F. Perepichka of McGill University. […]The researchers were generously supported by Conseil Franco-Québécois de coopération universitaire, the France–Italy International Program for Scientific Cooperation, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, Fonds québécois de recherche – Nature et technologies, and a Québec MEIE grant (in collaboration with Belgium).

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

Quasi one-dimensional band dispersion and surface metallization in long-range ordered polymeric wires by Guillaume Vasseur, Yannick Fagot-Revurat, Muriel Sicot, Bertrand Kierren, Luc Moreau, Daniel Malterre, Luis Cardenas, Gianluca Galeotti, Josh Lipton-Duffin, Federico Rosei, Marco Di Giovannantonio, Giorgio Contini, Patrick Le Fèvre, François Bertran, Liangbo Liang, Vincent Meunier, Dmitrii F. Perepichka. Nature Communications 7, Article number:  10235 doi:10.1038/ncomms10235 Published 04 January 2016

This is an open access paper.

*’ScienceDaily’ corrected to ‘phys.org’ on Tues., Jan. 5, 2016 at 1615 PST.

‘Stained glass nanotechnology’ for color displays

From a Dec. 4, 2015 news item on ScienceDaily,

A new method for building “drawbridges” between metal nanoparticles may allow electronics makers to build full-color displays using light-scattering nanoparticles that are similar to the gold materials that medieval artisans used to create red stained-glass.

“Wouldn’t it be interesting if we could create stained-glass windows that changed colors at the flip of a switch?” said Christy Landes, associate professor of chemistry at Rice and the lead researcher on a new study about the drawbridge method that appears this week in the open-access journal Science Advances.

The research by Landes and other experts at Rice University’s Smalley-Curl Institute could allow engineers to use standard electrical switching techniques to construct color displays from pairs of nanoparticles that scatter different colors of light.

For centuries, stained-glass makers have tapped the light-scattering properties of tiny gold nanoparticles to produce glass with rich red tones. Similar types of materials could increasingly find use in modern electronics as manufacturers work to make smaller, faster and more energy-efficient components that operate at optical frequencies.

A Dec. 4, 2015 Rice University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the research in more detail,

Though metal nanoparticles scatter bright light, researchers have found it difficult to coax them to produce dramatically different colors, Landes said.

Rice’s new drawbridge method for color switching incorporates metal nanoparticles that absorb light energy and convert it into plasmons, waves of electrons that flow like a fluid across a particle’s surface. Each plasmon scatters and absorbs a characteristic frequency of light, and even minor changes in the wave-like sloshing of a plasmon shift that frequency. The greater the change in plasmonic frequency, the greater the difference between the colors observed.

“Engineers hoping to make a display from optically active nanoparticles need to be able to switch the color,” Landes said. “That type of switching has proven very difficult to achieve with nanoparticles. People have achieved moderate success using various plasmon-coupling schemes in particle assemblies. What we’ve shown though is variation of the coupling mechanism itself, which can be used to produce huge color changes both rapidly and reversibly.”

To demonstrate the method, Landes and study lead author Chad Byers, a graduate student in her lab, anchored pairs of gold nanoparticles to a glass surface covered with indium tin oxide (ITO), the same conductor that’s used in many smartphone screens. By sealing the particles in a chamber filled with a saltwater electrolyte and a silver electrode, Byers and Landes were able form a device with a complete circuit. They then showed they could apply a small voltage to the ITO to electroplate silver onto the surface of the gold particles. In that process, the particles were first coated with a thin layer of silver chloride. By later applying a negative voltage, the researchers caused a conductive silver “drawbridge” to form. Reversing the voltage caused the bridge to withdraw.

“The great thing about these chemical bridges is that we can create and eliminate them simply by applying or reversing a voltage,” Landes said. “This is the first method yet demonstrated to produce dramatic, reversible color changes for devices built from light-activated nanoparticles.”

This research has its roots in previous work (from the news release),

Byers said his research into the plasmonic behavior of gold dimers began about two years ago.

“We were pursuing the idea that we could make significant changes in optical properties of individual particles simply by altering charge density,” he said. “Theory predicts that colors can be changed just by adding or removing electrons, and we wanted to see if we could do that reversibly, simply by turning a voltage on or off.”

The experiments worked. The color shift was observed and reversible, but the change in the color was minute.

“It wasn’t going to get anybody excited about any sort of switchable display applications,” Landes said.

But she and Byers also noticed that their results differed from the theoretical predictions.

Landes said that was because the predictions were based upon using an inert electrode made of a metal like palladium that isn’t subject to oxidation. But silver is not inert. It reacts easily with oxygen in air or water to form a coat of unsightly silver oxide. This oxidizing layer can also form from silver chloride, and Landes said that is what was occurring when the silver counter electrode was used in Byers’ first experiments.

The scientists decided to embrace imperfection (from the news release),

“It was an imperfection that was throwing off our results, but rather than run away from it, we decided to use it to our advantage,” Landes said.

Rice plasmonics pioneer and study co-author Naomi Halas, director of the Smalley-Curl Institute, said the new research shows how plasmonic components could be used to produce electronically switchable color-displays.

“Gold nanoparticles are particularly attractive for display purposes,” said Halas, Rice’s Stanley C. Moore Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and professor of chemistry, bioengineering, physics and astronomy, and materials science and nanoengineering. “Depending upon their shape, they can produce a variety of specific colors. They are also extremely stable, and even though gold is expensive, very little is needed to produce an extremely bright color.”

In designing, testing and analyzing the follow-up experiments on dimers, Landes and Byers engaged with a brain trust of Rice plasmonics experts that included Halas, physicist and engineer Peter Nordlander, chemist Stephan Link, materials scientist Emilie Ringe and their students, as well as Paul Mulvaney of the University of Melbourne in Australia.

Together, the team confirmed the composition and spacing of the dimers and showed how metal drawbridges could be used to induce large color shifts based on voltage inputs.

Nordlander and Hui Zhang, the two theorists in the group, examined the device’s “plasmonic coupling,” the interacting dance that plasmons engage in when they are in close contact. For instance, plasmonic dimers are known to act as light-activated capacitors, and prior research has shown that connecting dimers with nanowire bridges brings about a new state of resonance known as a “charge-transfer plasmon,” which has its own distinct optical signature.

“The electrochemical bridging of the interparticle gap enables a fully reversible transition between two plasmonic coupling regimes, one capacitive and the other conductive,” Nordlander said. “The shift between these regimes is evident from the dynamic evolution of the charge transfer plasmon.”

Halas said the method provides plasmonic researchers with a valuable tool for precisely controlling the gaps between dimers and other multiparticle plasmonic configurations.

“In an applied sense, gap control is important for the development of active plasmonic devices like switches and modulators, but it is also an important tool for basic scientists who are conducting curiosity-driven research in the emerging field of quantum plasmonics.”

I’m glad the news release writer included the background work leading to this new research and to hint at the level of collaboration needed to achieve the scientists’ new understanding of color switching.

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

From tunable core-shell nanoparticles to plasmonic drawbridges: Active control of nanoparticle optical properties by Chad P. Byers, Hui Zhang, Dayne F. Swearer, Mustafa Yorulmaz, Benjamin S. Hoener, Da Huang, Anneli Hoggard, Wei-Shun Chang, Paul Mulvaney, Emilie Ringe, Naomi J. Halas, Peter Nordlander, Stephan Link, and Christy F. Landes. Science Advances  04 Dec 2015: Vol. 1, no. 11, e1500988 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1500988

In case you missed it in the news release, this is an open access paper.

Speed of commercializing fashion technology in the 19th century

It took our 19th century ancestors four years to commercialize a new purple dye. While this is not a nanotechnology story as such, it’s a fascinating fashion story that also focuses on commercialization (a newly urgent aspect of the nanotechnology effort). From a Dec. 1, 2015 Elsevier press release on EurekAlert,

The dye industry of the 19th century was fast-moving and international, according to a state-of-the-art analysis of four purple dresses. The study, published in Spectrochimica Acta, Part A: Molecular and Biomolecular Spectroscopy, reveals that a brand new purple dye went from first synthesis to commercial use in just a few years.

Before the 1800s, purple dye came at a premium, so it was usually restricted to royalty — hence the connection between royals and purple. The 19th century saw the discovery of several synthetic purple dyes, making purple textiles more affordable and readily available. Understanding where these dyes came from and were used is therefore of historical interest.

In the new study, researchers from CSIRO Manufacturing and the National Gallery of Victoria in Australia show that the new purple dyes were part of a fast-moving industry, going from first synthesis to commercial use in as few as four years. This reflects how dynamic the fashion industry must have been at the time.

“Chemical analysis has given us a glimpse into the state of the dye industry in the 19th century, revealing the actual use of dyes around the world,” said Dr. Jeffrey Church, one of the authors of the study and principal research scientist at CSIRO Manufacturing.

The researchers took small samples of fibers from four dresses: three 19th century English dresses and one Australian wedding gown. They extracted the dyes from very small silk yarn samples and analyzed them using a combination of chemical techniques: thin layer chromatography and surface enhanced Raman spectroscopy, Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy and energy dispersive x-ray spectroscopy.

They found that the three English dresses were dyed using methyl violet; one of them was made only four years after the dye was first synthesized.

“The dress containing methyl violet was made shortly after the initial synthesis of the dye, indicating the rapidity with which the new synthetic dyes were embraced by the textile dye trade and the fashion world of the day,” commented Dr. Church.

However, the Australian wedding dress incorporated the use of a different dye — Perkin’s mauve — which was very historically significant, as it was the first synthetic purple dye and was only produced for 10 years. This was a surprise to the researchers, as the dress was made 20 years after the dye had been replaced on the market.

“The dress in question was made in Australia,” explained Dr. Church. “Does the presence of Perkin’s mauve relate to trade delays between Europe and Australia? Or was this precious fabric woven decades earlier and kept for the special purpose of a wedding? This is an excellent example of how state-of-the-art science and technology can shed light on the lives and times of previous generations. In doing so, as is common in science, one often raises more questions.”

The researchers have provided an image of the dresses,

Fig. 1. Dress 1 circa 1865, dress 2 circa 1898, dress 3 circa 1878 and dress 4 circa 1885 (clock-wise from left top). Details of these dresses are presented in the Experimental section. [downloaded from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1386142515302742]

Fig. 1. Dress 1 circa 1865, dress 2 circa 1898, dress 3 circa 1878 and dress 4 circa 1885 (clock-wise from left top). Details of these dresses are presented in the Experimental section. [downloaded from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1386142515302742]

Can you guess which one is the wedding dress? I was wrong. To find out more about the research and the dresses, here’s a link and a citation,

The purple coloration of four late 19th century silk dresses: A spectroscopic investigation by Andrea L. Woodhead, Bronwyn Cosgrove, Jeffrey S. Church. Spectrochimica Acta Part A: Molecular and Biomolecular Spectroscopy Volume 154, 5 February 2016, Pages 185–192  doi:10.1016/j.saa.2015.10.024

This paper appears to be open access. It’s quite interesting as they trace the history of purple dyes back to ancient times before fast forwarding to the 19th Century.

Boron nitride sponges for oil spill cleanups

The best part of the news is that the scientists are ready to test these sponges in industrial trials but first here’s why the Australians are so excited about the work from a Dec. 1, 2015 news item on Azonano,

Deakin University scientists have manufactured a revolutionary material that can clean up oil spills, which could save the earth from potential future disasters such as any repeat of the 2010 Gulf Coast BP disaster that wreaked environmental havoc and cost a reported $40 billion.

The major breakthrough material, which literally absorbs the oil like a sponge, is the result of support from the Australian Research Council and is now ready to be trialled by industry after two years of refinement in the laboratory at Deakin’s Institute for Frontier Materials (IFM).

Alfred Deakin Professor Ying (Ian) Chen, the lead author on a paper which outlines the team’s breakthrough in today’s edition of Nature Communications, said the material was the most exciting advancement in oil spill clean-up technology in decades.

Oil spills are a global problem and wreak havoc on our aquatic ecosystems, not to mention cost billions of dollars in damage.

“Everyone remembers the Gulf Coast disaster, but here in Australia they are a regular problem, and not just in our waters. Oil spills from trucks and other vehicles can close freeways for an entire day, again amounting to large economic losses. Professor Chen

But current methods of cleaning up oil spills are inefficient and unsophisticated, taking too long, causing ongoing and expensive damage, which is why the development of our technology was supported by the Australian Research Council.

“We are so excited to have finally got to this stage after two years of trying to work out how to turn what we knew was a good material into something that could be practically used.

A Nov. 30, 2015 Deakin University media release, which originated the news item, provides some technical details,

“In 2013 we developed the first stage of the material, but it was simply a powder. This powder had absorption capabilities, but you cannot simply throw powder onto oil – you need to be able to bind that powder into a sponge so that we can soak the oil up, and also separate it from water.”

The lead author on the paper, IFM scientist Dr Weiwei Lei,) an Australian Research Council Discovery Early Career Research Awardee, said turning the powder into a sponge was a big challenge.

“But we have finally done it by developing a new production technique,” Dr Lei said.

“The ground-breaking material is called a boron nitride nanosheet, which is made up of flakes which are just several nanometers (one billionth of a meter) in thickness with tiny holes which can increase its surface area per gram to effectively the size of 5.5 tennis courts.”

The research team, which included scientists from Drexel University, Philadelphia, and Missouri University of Science and Technology, started with boron nitride powder known as “white graphite” and broke it into atomically thin sheets that were used to make a sponge.

“The pores in the nanosheets provide the surface area to absorb oils and organic solvents up to 33 times its own weight,” Dr Lei said.

Professor Yury Gogotsi from Drexel University said boron nitride nanosheets did not burn, could withstand flame, and be used in flexible and transparent electrical and heat insulation, as well as many other applications.

“We are delighted that support from the Australian Research Council allowed us to participate in this interesting study and we could help our IFM colleagues to model and better understand this wonderful material, ” Professor Gogotsi said.

Professor Vadym Mochalin from Missouri University of Science and Technology said the mechanochemical technique developed meant it was possible to produce high-concentration stable aqueous colloidal solutions of boron nitride sheets, which could then be transformed into the ultralight porous aerogels and membranes for oil clean-up.

“The use of computational modelling helped us to understand the intimate details of this novel mechanochemical exfoliation process. It is a nice illustration of the power, which combined experimental plus modelling approach offers researchers nowadays.”

The research team is now ready to have their “sponge” trialled by industry. [emphasis mine]

The nanotechnology team at IFM has been working on boron nitride nanomaterials for two decades and is an internationally recognised leader in boron nitride nanotubes and nanosheets.

There was at least one other team working on  sponges, all these are composed of carbon nanotubes, for oil spills (mentioned in my April 17, 2012 posting) but they don’t seem to have been able to get their work out of the laboratory.

Here’s a link to and a citation for boron nitride sponges,

Boron nitride colloidal solutions, ultralight aerogels and freestanding membranes through one-step exfoliation and functionalization by Weiwei Lei, Vadym N. Mochalin, Dan Liu, Si Qin, Yury Gogotsi, & Ying Chen. Nature Communications 6, Article number: 8849 doi:10.1038/ncomms9849 Published 27 November 2015

This is an open access paper.

Café Scientifique (Vancouver, Canada) on climate change and rise of complex life on Nov. 24, 2015 and Member of Parliament Joyce Murray’s Paris Climate Conference breakfast meeting

On Tuesday, November 24, 2015 at 7:30 pm in the back room of The Railway Club (2nd floor of 579 Dunsmuir St. [at Seymour St.]), Café Scientifique will be hosting a talk about climate change and the rise of complex life (from the Nov. 12, 2015 announcement),

Our speaker for the evening will be Dr. Mark Jellinek.  The title of his talk is:

The Formation and Breakup of Earth’s Supercontinents and the Remarkable Link to Earth’s Climate and the Rise of Complex Life

Earth history is marked by the intermittent formation and breakup of “supercontinents”, where all the land mass is organized much like a completed jigsaw puzzle centered at the equator or pole of the planet. Such events disrupt the mantle convective motions that cool our planet, affecting the volcanic and weathering processes that maintain Earth’s remarkably hospitable climate, in turn. In this talk I will explore how the last two supercontinental cycles impelled Earth into profoundly different climate extreme’s: a ~150 million year long cold period involving protracted global glaciations beginning about 800 million years ago and a ~100 million year long period of extreme warming beginning about 170 million years ago. One of the most provocative features of the last period of global glaciation is the rapid emergence of complex, multicellular animals about 650 million years ago. Why global glaciation might stimulate such an evolutionary bifurcation is, however, unclear. Predictable environmental stresses related to effects of the formation and breakup of the supercontinent Rodinia on ocean chemistry and Earth’s surface climate may play a crucial and unexpected role that I will discuss.

A professor in the Dept. of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of British Columbia, Dr. Jellinek’s research interests include Volcanology, Geodynamics, Planetary Science, Geological Fluid Mechanics. You can find out more about Dr. Jellinek and his work here.

Joyce Murray and the Paris Climate Conference (sold out)

Joyce Murray is a Canadian Member of Parliament, (Liberal) for the riding of Vancouver Quadra who hosts a regular breakfast meeting where topics of interest (child care, seniors, transportation, the arts, big data, etc.) are discussed. From a Nov. 13, 2015 email announcement,

You are invited to our first post-election Vancouver Quadra MP Breakfast Connections on November 27th at Enigma Restaurant, for a discussion with Dr. Mark Jaccard on why the heat will be on world leaders in Paris, in the days leading to December 12th,  at the Paris Climate Conference (COP 21).

After 20 years of UN negotiations, the world expects a legally binding universal agreement on climate to keep temperature increases below 2°C! The climate heat will especially be on laggards like Canada and Australia’s new Prime Ministers. What might be expected of the Right Honorable Justin Trudeau and his provincial premiers? What are the possible outcomes of COP21?

Dr. Jaccard has worked with leadership in countries like China and the United States, and helped develop British Columbia’s innovative Climate Action Plan and Carbon Tax.

Join us for this unique opportunity to engage with a climate policy expert who has participated in this critical global journey. From the occasion of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit resulting in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), through the third Conference of Parties’ (COP3) Kyoto Protocol, to COP21 today, the building blocks for a binding international solution have been assembled. What’s still missing?

Mark has been a professor in the School of Resource and Environmental Management at Simon Fraser University since 1986 and is a global leader and consultant on structuring climate mitigation solutions. Former Chair and CEO of the British Columbia Utilities Commission, he has published over 100 academic papers, most of these related to his principal research focus: the design and application of energy-economy models that assess the effectiveness of sustainable energy and climate policies.

When: Friday November 27th 7:30 to 9:00AM

Where: Enigma Restaurant 4397 west 10th Avenue (at Trimble)

Cost: $20 includes a hot buffet breakfast; $10 for students (cash only please)

RSVP by emailing joyce.murray.c1@parl.gc.ca or call 604-664-9220


They’re not even taking names for a waiting list. You can find out more about Dr. Jaccard’s work here.

Primordial goo for implants

Using the words ‘goo’ and ‘nanotechnology’ together almost always leads to ‘end of world’ scenarios referred to as  ‘grey goo‘ or there’s an alternative ‘green goo’ version also known as ecophagy. Presumably, that’s why Australian researchers avoided the word ‘nanotechnology’ in their study of the original goo, primordial goo from which all life oozed, to develop a coating for medical implants. From a Nov. 16, 2015 (Australia) Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) press release (also on EurekAlert),

Australia’s national science research organisation, CSIRO, has developed an innovative new coating that could be used to improve medical devices and implants, thanks to a “goo” thought to be have been home to the building blocks of life.

The molecules from this primordial goo – known as prebiotic compounds – can be traced back billions of years and have been studied intensively since their discovery several decades ago.

For the first time, Australian researchers have uncovered a way to use these molecules to assist with medical treatments.

“We wanted to use these prehistoric molecules, which are believed to have been the source of all life evolving on Earth, to see if we could apply the chemistry in a practical way.” [Dr. Richard Evans, CSIRO researcher]

The team discovered that the coating is bio-friendly and cells readily grow and colonise it.

It could be applied to medical devices to improve their performance and acceptance by the body.

This could assist with a range of medical procedures.

“The non-toxic coating (left) is adhesive and will coat almost any material making its potential biomedical applications really broad,” Dr Evans said.

The researchers also experimented with adding silver compounds, in order to produce an antibacterial coating that can be used on devices such as catheters to avoid infections.

“Other compounds can also be added to implants to reduce friction, make them more durable and resistant to wear,” Dr Evans said.

The coating process the scientists developed is very simple and uses methods and substances that are readily available.

This means biomedical manufacturers can produce improved results more cost effectively compared to existing coatings.

CSIRO is the first organisation to investigate practical applications of this kind using prebiotic chemistry.

“This research opens the door to a host of new biomedical possibilities that are still yet to be explored,” Dr Evans said.

CSIRO is seeking to partner with biomedical manufacturers to exploit this technology.

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

Prebiotic-chemistry inspired polymer coatings for biomedical and material science applications by Helmut Thissen, Aylin Koegler, Mario Salwiczek, Christopher D Easton, Yue Qu, Trevor Lithgow, and Richard A Evans.  NPG Asia Materials (2015) 7, e225; doi:10.1038/am.2015.122 Published online 13 November 2015

This is an open access paper,

Café Scientifique (Vancouver, Canada) and noise on Oct. 27, 2015

On Tuesday, October 27, 2015  Café Scientifique, in the back room of The Railway Club (2nd floor of 579 Dunsmuir St. [at Seymour St.]), will be hosting a talk on the history of noise (from the Oct. 13, 2015 announcement),

Our speaker for the evening will be Dr. Shawn Bullock.  The title of his talk is:

The History of Noise: Perspectives from Physics and Engineering

The word “noise” is often synonymous with “nuisance,” which implies something to be avoided as much as possible. We label blaring sirens, the space between stations on the radio dial and the din of a busy street as “noise.” Is noise simply a sound we don’t like? We will consider the evolution of how scientists and engineers have thought about noise, beginning in the 19th-century and continuing to the present day. We will explore the idea of noise both as a social construction and as a technological necessity. We’ll also touch on critical developments in the study of sound, the history of physics and engineering, and the development of communications technology.

This description is almost identical to the description Bullock gave for a November 2014 talk he titled: Snap, Crackle, Pop!: A Short History of Noise which he summarizes this way after delivering the talk,

I used ideas from the history of physics, the history of music, the discipline of sound studies, and the history of electrical engineering to make the point that understanding “noise” is essential to understanding advancements in physics and engineering in the last century. We began with a discussion of 19th-century attitudes toward noise (and its association with “progress” and industry) before moving on to examine the early history of recorded sound and music, early attempts to measure noise, and the noise abatement movement. I concluded with a brief overview of my recent work on the role of noise in the development of the modem during the early Cold War.

You can find out more about Dr. Bullock who is an assistant professor of science education at Simon Fraser University here at his website.

On the subject of noise, although not directly related to Bullock’s work, there’s some research suggesting that noise may be having a serious impact on marine life. From an Oct. 8, 2015 Elsevier press release on EurekAlert,

Quiet areas should be sectioned off in the oceans to give us a better picture of the impact human generated noise is having on marine animals, according to a new study published in Marine Pollution Bulletin. By assigning zones through which ships cannot travel, researchers will be able to compare the behavior of animals in these quiet zones to those living in noisier areas, helping decide the best way to protect marine life from harmful noise.

The authors of the study, from the University of St Andrews, UK, the Oceans Initiative, Cornell University, USA, and Curtin University, Australia, say focusing on protecting areas that are still quiet will give researchers a better insight into the true impact we are having on the oceans.

Almost all marine organisms, including mammals like whales and dolphins, fish and even invertebrates, use sound to find food, avoid predators, choose mates and navigate. Chronic noise from human activities such as shipping can have a big impact on these animals, since it interferes with their acoustic signaling – increased background noise can mean animals are unable to hear important signals, and they tend to swim away from sources of noise, disrupting their normal behavior.

The number of ships in the oceans has increased fourfold since 1992, increasing marine noise dramatically. Ships are also getting bigger, and therefore noisier: in 2000 the biggest cargo ships could carry 8,000 containers; today’s biggest carry 18,000.

“Marine animals, especially whales, depend on a naturally quiet ocean for survival, but humans are polluting major portions of the ocean with noise,” said Dr. Christopher Clark from the Bioacoustics Research Program, Cornell University. “We must make every effort to protect quiet ocean regions now, before they grow too noisy from the din of our activities.”

For the new study, lead author Dr. Rob Williams and the team mapped out areas of high and low noise pollution in the oceans around Canada. Using shipping route and speed data from Environment Canada, the researchers put together a model of noise based on ships’ location, size and speed, calculating the cumulative sound they produce over the course of a year. They used the maps to predict how noisy they thought a particular area ought to be.

To test their predictions, in partnership with Cornell University, they deployed 12 autonomous hydrophones – devices that can measure noise in water – and found a correlation in terms of how the areas ranked from quietest to noisiest. The quiet areas are potential noise conservation zones.

“We tend to focus on problems in conservation biology. This was a fun study to work on, because we looked for opportunities to protect species by working with existing patterns in noise and animal distribution, and found that British Colombia offers many important habitat for whales that are still quiet,” said Dr. Rob Williams, lead author of the study. “If we think of quiet, wild oceans as a natural resource, we are lucky that Canada is blessed with globally rare pockets of acoustic wilderness. It makes sense to talk about protecting acoustic sanctuaries before we lose them.”

Although it is clear that noise has an impact on marine organisms, the exact effect is still not well understood. By changing their acoustic environment, we could be inadvertently choosing winners and losers in terms of survival; researchers are still at an early stage of predicting who will win or lose under different circumstances. The quiet areas the team identified could serve as experimental control sites for research like the International Quiet Ocean Experiment to see what effects ocean noise is having on marine life.

“Sound is perceived differently by different species, and some are more affected by noise than others,” said Christine Erbe, co-author of the study and Director of the Marine Science Center, Curtin University, Australia.

So far, the researchers have focused on marine mammals – whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals and sea lions. With a Pew Fellowship in Marine Conservation, Dr. Williams now plans to look at the effects of noise on fish, which are less well understood. By starting to quantify that and let people know what the likely economic effect on fisheries or on fish that are culturally important, Dr. Williams hopes to get the attention of the people who make decisions that affect ocean noise.

“When protecting highly mobile and migratory species that are poorly studied, it may make sense to focus on threats rather than the animals themselves. Shipping patterns decided by humans are often more predictable than the movements of whales and dolphins,” said Erin Ashe, co-author of the study and co-founder of the Oceans Initiative from the University of St Andrews.

Keeping areas of the ocean quiet is easier than reducing noise in already busy zones, say the authors of the study. However, if future research that stems from noise protected zones indicates that overall marine noise should be reduced, there are several possible approaches to reducing noise. The first is speed reduction: the faster a ship goes, the noisier it gets, so slowing down would reduce overall noise. The noisiest ships could also be targeted for replacement: by reducing the noise produced by the noisiest 10% of ships in use today, overall marine noise could be reduced by more than half. The third, more long-term, option would be to build quieter ships from the outset.

I can’t help wondering why Canadian scientists aren’t involved in this research taking place off our shores. Regardless, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Quiet(er) marine protected areas by Rob Williams, Christine Erbe, Erin Ashe, & Christopher W. Clark. Marine Pollution Bulletin Available online 16 September 2015 In Press, Corrected Proof doi:10.1016/j.marpolbul.2015.09.012

This is an open access paper.