Tag Archives: Australia

Seaweed supercapacitors

I like munching on seaweed from time to time but it seems that seaweed may be more than just a foodstuff according to an April 5, 2017 news item on Nanowerk,

Seaweed, the edible algae with a long history in some Asian cuisines, and which has also become part of the Western foodie culture, could turn out to be an essential ingredient in another trend: the development of more sustainable ways to power our devices. Researchers have made a seaweed-derived material to help boost the performance of superconductors, lithium-ion batteries and fuel cells.

The team will present the work today [April 5, 2017] at the 253rd National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS). ACS, the world’s largest scientific society, is holding the meeting here through Thursday. It features more than 14,000 presentations on a wide range of science topics.

An April 5, 2017 American Chemical Society news release on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, gives more details about the presentation,

“Carbon-based materials are the most versatile materials used in the field of energy storage and conversion,” Dongjiang Yang, Ph.D., says. “We wanted to produce carbon-based materials via a really ‘green’ pathway. Given the renewability of seaweed, we chose seaweed extract as a precursor and template to synthesize hierarchical porous carbon materials.” He explains that the project opens a new way to use earth-abundant materials to develop future high-performance, multifunctional carbon nanomaterials for energy storage and catalysis on a large scale.

Traditional carbon materials, such as graphite, have been essential to creating the current energy landscape. But to make the leap to the next generation of lithium-ion batteries and other storage devices, an even better material is needed, preferably one that can be sustainably sourced, Yang says.

With these factors in mind, Yang, who is currently at Qingdao University (China), turned to the ocean. Seaweed is an abundant algae that grows easily in salt water. While Yang was at Griffith University in Australia, he worked with colleagues at Qingdao University and at Los Alamos National Laboratory in the U.S. to make porous carbon nanofibers from seaweed extract. Chelating, or binding, metal ions such as cobalt to the alginate molecules resulted in nanofibers with an “egg-box” structure, with alginate units enveloping the metal ions. This architecture is key to the material’s stability and controllable synthesis, Yang says.

Testing showed that the seaweed-derived material had a large reversible capacity of 625 milliampere hours per gram (mAhg-1), which is considerably more than the 372 mAhg-1 capacity of traditional graphite anodes for lithium-ion batteries. This could help double the range of electric cars if the cathode material is of equal quality. The egg-box fibers also performed as well as commercial platinum-based catalysts used in fuel-cell technologies and with much better long-term stability. They also showed high capacitance as a superconductor material at 197 Farads per gram, which could be applied in zinc-air batteries and supercapacitors. The researchers published their initial results in ACS Central Science in 2015 and have since developed the materials further.

For example, building on the same egg-box structure, the researchers say they have suppressed defects in seaweed-based, lithium-ion battery cathodes that can block the movement of lithium ions and hinder battery performance. And recently, they have developed an approach using red algae-derived carrageenan and iron to make a porous sulfur-doped carbon aerogel with an ultra-high surface area. The structure could be a good candidate to use in lithium-sulfur batteries and supercapacitors.

More work is needed to commercialize the seaweed-based materials, however. Yang says currently more than 20,000 tons of alginate precursor can be extracted from seaweed per year for industrial use. But much more will be required to scale up production.

Here’s an image representing the research,

Scientists have created porous ‘egg-box’ structured nanofibers using seaweed extract. Credit: American Chemical Society

I’m not sure that looks like an egg-box but I’ll take their word for it.

Energy storage inspired by a fern’s fractal patterns

Australian researchers have come up with a bio-inspired approach to making solar energy storage more viable according to a March 31, 2017 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

Inspired by an American fern, researchers have developed a groundbreaking prototype that could be the answer to the storage challenge still holding solar back as a total energy solution (Science Express, “Bioinspired fractal electrodes for solar energy storages”).

The breakthrough electrode prototype (right) can be combined with a solar cell (left) for on-chip energy harvesting and storage. (Image: RMIT University)

A March 31, 2017 RMIT University press release, which originated the news item on Nanowerk, provides more detail (Note: A link has been removed),

The new type of electrode created by RMIT University researchers could boost the capacity of existing integrable storage technologies by 3000 per cent.

But the graphene-based prototype also opens a new path to the development of flexible thin film all-in-one solar capture and storage, bringing us one step closer to self-powering smart phones, laptops, cars and buildings.

The new electrode is designed to work with supercapacitors, which can charge and discharge power much faster than conventional batteries. Supercapacitors have been combined with solar, but their wider use as a storage solution is restricted because of their limited capacity.

RMIT’s Professor Min Gu said the new design drew on nature’s own genius solution to the challenge of filling a space in the most efficient way possible – through intricate self-repeating patterns known as “fractals”.

“The leaves of the western swordfern are densely crammed with veins, making them extremely efficient for storing energy and transporting water around the plant,” said Gu, Leader of the Laboratory of Artificial Intelligence Nanophotonics and Associate Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research Innovation and Entrepreneurship at RMIT.

“Our electrode is based on these fractal shapes – which are self-replicating, like the mini structures within snowflakes – and we’ve used this naturally-efficient design to improve solar energy storage at a nano level.

“The immediate application is combining this electrode with supercapacitors, as our experiments have shown our prototype can radically increase their storage capacity – 30 times more than current capacity limits.

“Capacity-boosted supercapacitors would offer both long-term reliability and quick-burst energy release – for when someone wants to use solar energy on a cloudy day for example – making them ideal alternatives for solar power storage.”

Combined with supercapacitors, the fractal-enabled laser-reduced graphene electrodes can hold the stored charge for longer, with minimal leakage.

The fractal design reflected the self-repeating shape of the veins of the western swordfern, Polystichum munitum, native to western North America.

Lead author, PhD researcher Litty Thekkekara, said because the prototype was based on flexible thin film technology, its potential applications were countless.

“The most exciting possibility is using this electrode with a solar cell, to provide a total on-chip energy harvesting and storage solution,” Thekkekara said.

“We can do that now with existing solar cells but these are bulky and rigid. The real future lies in integrating the prototype with flexible thin film solar – technology that is still in its infancy.

“Flexible thin film solar could be used almost anywhere you can imagine, from building windows to car panels, smart phones to smart watches. We would no longer need batteries to charge our phones or charging stations for our hybrid cars.

“With this flexible electrode prototype we’ve solved the storage part of the challenge, as well as shown how they can work with solar cells without affecting performance. Now the focus needs to be on flexible solar energy, so we can work towards achieving our vision of fully solar-reliant, self-powering electronics.”

The repeating pattern of veins in the leaves of the western swordfern, as seen here magnified 400 times, served as the inspiration for the new high-density electrode(Credit: RMIT University)

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

Bioinspired fractal electrodes for solar energy storages by Litty V. Thekkekara & Min Gu. Scientific Reports 7, Article number: 45585 (2017) doi:10.1038/srep45585 Published online: 31 March 2017

This is an open access paper.

Why are jokes funny? There may be a quantum explanation

Some years ago a friend who’d attended a conference on humour told me I really shouldn’t talk about humour until I had a degree on the topic. I decided the best way to deal with that piece of advice was to avoid all mention of any theories about humour to that friend. I’m happy to say the strategy has worked well although this latest research may allow me to broach the topic once again. From a March 17, 2017 Frontiers (publishing) news release on EurekAlert (Note: A link has been removed),

Why was 6 afraid of 7? Because 789. Whether this pun makes you giggle or groan in pain, your reaction is a consequence of the ambiguity of the joke. Thus far, models have not been able to fully account for the complexity of humor or exactly why we find puns and jokes funny, but a research article recently published in Frontiers in Physics suggests a novel approach: quantum theory.

By the way, it took me forever to get the joke. I always blame these things on the fact that I learned French before English (although my English is now my strongest language). So, for anyone who may immediately grasp the pun: Why was 6 afraid of 7? Because 78 (ate) 9.

This news release was posted by Anna Sigurdsson on March 22, 2017 on the Frontiers blog,

Aiming to answer the question of what kind of formal theory is needed to model the cognitive representation of a joke, researchers suggest that a quantum theory approach might be a contender. In their paper, they outline a quantum inspired model of humor, hoping that this new approach may succeed at a more nuanced modeling of the cognition of humor than previous attempts and lead to the development of a full-fledged, formal quantum theory model of humor. This initial model was tested in a study where participants rated the funniness of verbal puns, as well as the funniness of variants of these jokes (e.g. the punchline on its own, the set-up on its own). The results indicate that apart from the delivery of information, something else is happening on a cognitive level that makes the joke as a whole funny whereas its deconstructed components are not, and which makes a quantum approach appropriate to study this phenomenon.

For decades, researchers from a range of different fields have tried to explain the phenomenon of humor and what happens on a cognitive level in the moment when we “get the joke”. Even within the field of psychology, the topic of humor has been studied using many different approaches, and although the last two decades have seen an upswing of the application of quantum models to the study of psychological phenomena, this is the first time that a quantum theory approach has been suggested as a way to better understand the complexity of humor.

Previous computational models of humor have suggested that the funny element of a joke may be explained by a word’s ability to hold two different meanings (bisociation), and the existence of multiple, but incompatible, ways of interpreting a statement or situation (incongruity). During the build-up of the joke, we interpret the situation one way, and once the punch line comes, there is a shift in our understanding of the situation, which gives it a new meaning and creates the comical effect.

However, the authors argue that it is not the shift of meaning, but rather our ability to perceive both meanings simultaneously, that makes a pun funny. This is where a quantum approach might be able to account for the complexity of humor in a way that earlier models cannot. “Quantum formalisms are highly useful for describing cognitive states that entail this form of ambiguity,” says Dr. Liane Gabora from the University of British Columbia, corresponding author of the paper. “Funniness is not a pre-existing ‘element of reality’ that can be measured; it emerges from an interaction between the underlying nature of the joke, the cognitive state of the listener, and other social and environmental factors. This makes the quantum formalism an excellent candidate for modeling humor,” says Dr. Liane Gabora.

Although much work and testing remains before the completion of a formal quantum theory model of humor to explain the cognitive aspects of reacting to a pun, these first findings provide an exciting first step and opens for the possibility of a more nuanced modeling of humor. “The cognitive process of “getting” a joke is a difficult process to model, and we consider the work in this paper to be an early first step toward an eventually more comprehensive theory of humor that includes predictive models. We believe that the approach promises an exciting step toward a formal theory of humor, and that future research will build upon this modest beginning,” concludes Dr. Liane Gabora.

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

Toward a Quantum Theory of Humor by Liane Gabora and Kirsty Kitto. Front. Phys., 26 January 2017 | https://doi.org/10.3389/fphy.2016.00053

This paper has been published in an open access journal. In viewing the acknowledgements at the end of the paper I found what I found to be a surprising funding agency,

This work was supported by a grant (62R06523) from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. We are grateful to Samantha Thomson who assisted with the development of the questionnaire and the collection of the data for the study reported here.

While I’m at this, I might as well mention that Kirsty Katto is from the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) in Australia and, for those unfamiliar with the geography, the University of British Columbia is the the Canada’s province of British Columbia.

Revolutionizing electronics with liquid metal technology?

I’m not sure I’d call it the next big advance in electronics, there are too many advances jockeying for that position but this work from Australia and the US is fascinating. From a Feb. 17, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily,

A new technique using liquid metals to create integrated circuits that are just atoms thick could lead to the next big advance for electronics.

The process opens the way for the production of large wafers around 1.5 nanometres in depth (a sheet of paper, by comparison, is 100,000nm thick).

Other techniques have proven unreliable in terms of quality, difficult to scale up and function only at very high temperatures — 550 degrees or more.

A Feb. 17, 2017 RMIT University press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on the theme (Note: A link has been removed),

Distinguished Professor Kourosh Kalantar-zadeh, from RMIT’s School of Engineering, led the project, which also included colleagues from RMIT and researchers from CSIRO, Monash University, North Carolina State University and the University of California.

He said the electronics industry had hit a barrier.

“The fundamental technology of car engines has not progressed since 1920 and now the same is happening to electronics. Mobile phones and computers are no more powerful than five years ago.

“That is why this new 2D printing technique is so important – creating many layers of incredibly thin electronic chips on the same surface dramatically increases processing power and reduces costs.

“It will allow for the next revolution in electronics.”

Benjamin Carey, a researcher with RMIT and the CSIRO, said creating electronic wafers just atoms thick could overcome the limitations of current chip production.

It could also produce materials that were extremely bendable, paving the way for flexible electronics.

“However, none of the current technologies are able to create homogenous surfaces of atomically thin semiconductors on large surface areas that are useful for the industrial scale fabrication of chips.

“Our solution is to use the metals gallium and indium, which have a low melting point.

“These metals produce an atomically thin layer of oxide on their surface that naturally protects them. It is this thin oxide which we use in our fabrication method.

“By rolling the liquid metal, the oxide layer can be transferred on to an electronic wafer, which is then sulphurised. The surface of the wafer can be pre-treated to form individual transistors.

“We have used this novel method to create transistors and photo-detectors of very high gain and very high fabrication reliability in large scale.”

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

Wafer-scale two-dimensional semiconductors from printed oxide skin of liquid metals by Benjamin J. Carey, Jian Zhen Ou, Rhiannon M. Clark, Kyle J. Berean, Ali Zavabeti, Anthony S. R. Chesman, Salvy P. Russo, Desmond W. M. Lau, Zai-Quan Xu, Qiaoliang Bao, Omid Kevehei, Brant C. Gibson, Michael D. Dickey, Richard B. Kaner, Torben Daeneke, & Kourosh Kalantar-Zadeh. Nature Communications 8, Article number: 14482 (2017) doi:10.1038/ncomms14482
Published online: 17 February 2017

This paper is open access.

Atomic force microscope (AFM) shrunk down to a dime-sized device?

Before getting to the announcement, here’s a little background from Dexter Johnson’s Feb. 21, 2017 posting on his NanoClast blog (on the IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] website; Note: Links have been removed),

Ever since the 1980s, when Gerd Binnig of IBM first heard that “beautiful noise” made by the tip of the first scanning tunneling microscope (STM) dragging across the surface of an atom, and he later developed the atomic force microscope (AFM), these microscopy tools have been the bedrock of nanotechnology research and development.

AFMs have continued to evolve over the years, and at one time, IBM even looked into using them as the basis of a memory technology in the company’s Millipede project. Despite all this development, AFMs have remained bulky and expensive devices, costing as much as $50,000 [or more].

Now, here’s the announcement in a Feb. 15, 2017 news item on Nanowerk,

Researchers at The University of Texas at Dallas have created an atomic force microscope on a chip, dramatically shrinking the size — and, hopefully, the price tag — of a high-tech device commonly used to characterize material properties.

“A standard atomic force microscope is a large, bulky instrument, with multiple control loops, electronics and amplifiers,” said Dr. Reza Moheimani, professor of mechanical engineering at UT Dallas. “We have managed to miniaturize all of the electromechanical components down onto a single small chip.”

A Feb. 15, 2017 University of Texas at Dallas news release, which originated the news item, provides more detail,

An atomic force microscope (AFM) is a scientific tool that is used to create detailed three-dimensional images of the surfaces of materials, down to the nanometer scale — that’s roughly on the scale of individual molecules.

The basic AFM design consists of a tiny cantilever, or arm, that has a sharp tip attached to one end. As the apparatus scans back and forth across the surface of a sample, or the sample moves under it, the interactive forces between the sample and the tip cause the cantilever to move up and down as the tip follows the contours of the surface. Those movements are then translated into an image.

“An AFM is a microscope that ‘sees’ a surface kind of the way a visually impaired person might, by touching. You can get a resolution that is well beyond what an optical microscope can achieve,” said Moheimani, who holds the James Von Ehr Distinguished Chair in Science and Technology in the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science. “It can capture features that are very, very small.”

The UT Dallas team created its prototype on-chip AFM using a microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) approach.

“A classic example of MEMS technology are the accelerometers and gyroscopes found in smartphones,” said Dr. Anthony Fowler, a research scientist in Moheimani’s Laboratory for Dynamics and Control of Nanosystems and one of the article’s co-authors. “These used to be big, expensive, mechanical devices, but using MEMS technology, accelerometers have shrunk down onto a single chip, which can be manufactured for just a few dollars apiece.”

The MEMS-based AFM is about 1 square centimeter in size, or a little smaller than a dime. It is attached to a small printed circuit board, about half the size of a credit card, which contains circuitry, sensors and other miniaturized components that control the movement and other aspects of the device.

Conventional AFMs operate in various modes. Some map out a sample’s features by maintaining a constant force as the probe tip drags across the surface, while others do so by maintaining a constant distance between the two.

“The problem with using a constant height approach is that the tip is applying varying forces on a sample all the time, which can damage a sample that is very soft,” Fowler said. “Or, if you are scanning a very hard surface, you could wear down the tip,”

The MEMS-based AFM operates in “tapping mode,” which means the cantilever and tip oscillate up and down perpendicular to the sample, and the tip alternately contacts then lifts off from the surface. As the probe moves back and forth across a sample material, a feedback loop maintains the height of that oscillation, ultimately creating an image.

“In tapping mode, as the oscillating cantilever moves across the surface topography, the amplitude of the oscillation wants to change as it interacts with sample,” said Dr. Mohammad Maroufi, a research associate in mechanical engineering and co-author of the paper. “This device creates an image by maintaining the amplitude of oscillation.”

Because conventional AFMs require lasers and other large components to operate, their use can be limited. They’re also expensive.

“An educational version can cost about $30,000 or $40,000, and a laboratory-level AFM can run $500,000 or more,” Moheimani said. “Our MEMS approach to AFM design has the potential to significantly reduce the complexity and cost of the instrument.

“One of the attractive aspects about MEMS is that you can mass produce them, building hundreds or thousands of them in one shot, so the price of each chip would only be a few dollars. As a result, you might be able to offer the whole miniature AFM system for a few thousand dollars.”

A reduced size and price tag also could expand the AFMs’ utility beyond current scientific applications.

“For example, the semiconductor industry might benefit from these small devices, in particular companies that manufacture the silicon wafers from which computer chips are made,” Moheimani said. “With our technology, you might have an array of AFMs to characterize the wafer’s surface to find micro-faults before the product is shipped out.”

The lab prototype is a first-generation device, Moheimani said, and the group is already working on ways to improve and streamline the fabrication of the device.

“This is one of those technologies where, as they say, ‘If you build it, they will come.’ We anticipate finding many applications as the technology matures,” Moheimani said.

In addition to the UT Dallas researchers, Michael Ruppert, a visiting graduate student from the University of Newcastle in Australia, was a co-author of the journal article. Moheimani was Ruppert’s doctoral advisor.

So, an AFM that could cost as much as $500,000 for a laboratory has been shrunk to this size and become far less expensive,

A MEMS-based atomic force microscope developed by engineers at UT Dallas is about 1 square centimeter in size (top center). Here it is attached to a small printed circuit board that contains circuitry, sensors and other miniaturized components that control the movement and other aspects of the device. Courtesy: University of Texas at Dallas

Of course, there’s still more work to be done as you’ll note when reading Dexter’s Feb. 21, 2017 posting where he features answers to questions he directed to the researchers.

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

On-Chip Dynamic Mode Atomic Force Microscopy: A Silicon-on-Insulator MEMS Approach by  Michael G. Ruppert, Anthony G. Fowler, Mohammad Maroufi, S. O. Reza Moheimani. IEEE Journal of Microelectromechanical Systems Volume: 26 Issue: 1  Feb. 2017 DOI: 10.1109/JMEMS.2016.2628890 Date of Publication: 06 December 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.

Making graphene cheaply by using soybeans

One of the issues with new materials is being able to produce them in a commercially viable fashion and it seems that researchers in Australia may have helped  to do that with graphene. From a Feb. 15, 2017 news item on phys.org,

A breakthrough by CSIRO-led [Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation] scientists has made the world’s strongest material more commercially viable, thanks to the humble soybean.

From a Feb. 15, (?) 2017 CSIRO press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on the theme (Note: A link has been removed),

Graphene is a carbon material that is one atom thick.

Its thin composition and high conductivity means it is used in applications ranging from miniaturised electronics to biomedical devices.

These properties also enable thinner wire connections; providing extensive benefits for computers, solar panels, batteries, sensors and other devices.

Until now, the high cost of graphene production has been the major roadblock in its commercialisation.

Previously, graphene was grown in a highly-controlled environment with explosive compressed gases, requiring long hours of operation at high temperatures and extensive vacuum processing.

CSIRO scientists have developed a novel “GraphAir” technology which eliminates the need for such a highly-controlled environment.

The technology grows graphene film in ambient air with a natural precursor, making its production faster and simpler.

“This ambient-air process for graphene fabrication is fast, simple, safe, potentially scalable, and integration-friendly,” CSIRO scientist Dr Zhao Jun Han, co-author of the paper published today in Nature Communications said.

“Our unique technology is expected to reduce the cost of graphene production and improve the uptake in new applications.”

GraphAir transforms soybean oil – a renewable, natural material – into graphene films in a single step.

“Our GraphAir technology results in good and transformable graphene properties, comparable to graphene made by conventional methods,” CSIRO scientist and co-author of the study Dr Dong Han Seo said.

With heat, soybean oil breaks down into a range of carbon building units that are essential for the synthesis of graphene.

The team also transformed other types of renewable and even waste oil, such as those leftover from barbecues or cooking, into graphene films.

“We can now recycle waste oils that would have otherwise been discarded and transform them into something useful,” Dr Seo said.

The potential applications of graphene include water filtration and purification, renewable energy, sensors, personalised healthcare and medicine, to name a few.

Graphene has excellent electronic, mechanical, thermal and optical properties as well.

Its uses range from improving battery performance in energy devices, to cheaper solar panels.

CSIRO are looking to partner with industry to find new uses for graphene.

Researchers from The University of Sydney, University of Technology Sydney and The Queensland University of Technology also contributed to this work.

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

Single-step ambient-air synthesis of graphene from renewable precursors as electrochemical genosensor by Dong Han Seo, Shafique Pineda, Jinghua Fang, Yesim Gozukara, Samuel Yick, Avi Bendavid, Simon Kwai Hung Lam, Adrian T. Murdock, Anthony B. Murphy, Zhao Jun Han, & Kostya (Ken) Ostrikov. Nature Communications 8, Article number: 14217 (2017) doi:10.1038/ncomms14217 Published online: 30 January 2017

This is an open access paper.

International Women’s Day March 8, 2017 and UNESCO/L’Oréal’s For Women in Science (Rising Talents)

Before getting to the science, here’s a little music in honour of March 8, 2017 International Women’s Day,

There is is a Wikipedia entry devoted to Rise Up (Parachute Club song), Note: Links have been removed<

“Rise Up” is a pop song recorded by the Canadian group Parachute Club on their self-titled 1983 album. It was produced and engineered by Daniel Lanois, and written by Parachute Club members Billy Bryans, Lauri Conger, Lorraine Segato and Steve Webster with lyrics contributed by filmmaker Lynne Fernie.

An upbeat call for peace, celebration, and “freedom / to love who we please,” the song was a national hit in Canada, and was hailed as a unique achievement in Canadian pop music:

“ Rarely does one experience a piece of music in white North America where the barrier between participant and observer breaks down. Rise Up rises right up and breaks down the wall.[1] ”

According to Segato, the song was not written with any one individual group in mind, but as a universal anthem of freedom and equality;[2] Fernie described the song’s lyrics as having been inspired in part by West Coast First Nations rituals in which young girls would “rise up” at dawn to adopt their adult names as a rite of passage.[3]

It remains the band’s most famous song, and has been adopted as an activist anthem for causes as diverse as gay rights, feminism, anti-racism and the New Democratic Party.[4] As well, the song’s reggae and soca-influenced rhythms made it the first significant commercial breakthrough for Caribbean music in Canada.

L’Oréal UNESCO For Women in Science

From a March 8, 2017 UNESCO press release (received via email),

Fifteen outstanding young women researchers, selected
among more than 250 candidates in the framework of the 19th edition of
the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science awards, will receive the
International Rising Talent fellowship during a gala on 21 March at the
hotel Pullman Tour Eiffel de Paris. By recognizing their achievements at
a key moment in their careers, the _For Women in Science programme aims
to help them pursue their research.

Since 1998, the L’Oréal-UNESCO _For Women in Science programme [1]
has highlighted the achievements of outstanding women scientists and
supported promising younger women who are in the early stages of their
scientific careers. Selected among the best national and regional
L’Oréal-UNESCO fellows, the International Rising Talents come from
all regions of the world (Africa and Arab States, Asia-Pacific, Europe,
Latin America and North America).

Together with the five laureates of the 2017 L’Oreal-UNESCO For Women
in Science awards [2], they will participate in a week of events,
training and exchanges that will culminate with the award ceremony on 23
March 2017 at the Mutualité in Paris.

The 2017 International Rising Talent are recognized for their work in
the following five categories:

WATCHING THE BRAIN AT WORK

* DOCTOR LORINA NACI, Canada
Fundamental medicine
In a coma: is the patient conscious or unconscious?     * ASSOCIATE
PROFESSOR MUIREANN IRISH, Australia

Clinical medicine
Recognizing Alzheimer’s before the first signs appear.

ON THE ROAD TO CONCEIVING NEW MEDICAL TREATMENTS

* DOCTOR HYUN LEE, Germany
Biological Sciences
Neurodegenerative diseases: untangling aggregated proteins.
* DOCTOR NAM-KYUNG YU, Republic of Korea
Biological Sciences
Rett syndrome: neuronal cells come under fire
* DOCTOR STEPHANIE FANUCCHI, South Africa
Biological Sciences
Better understanding the immune system.
* DOCTOR JULIA ETULAIN, Argentina
Biological Sciences
Better tissue healing.

Finding potential new sources of drugs

* DOCTOR RYM BEN SALLEM, Tunisia
Biological Sciences
New antibiotics are right under our feet.
* DOCTOR HAB JOANNA SULKOWSKA, Poland
Biological Sciences
Unraveling the secrets of entangled proteins.

GETTING TO THE HEART OF MATTER

* MS NAZEK EL-ATAB, United Arab Emirates
Electrical, Electronic and Computer Engineering
Miniaturizing electronics without losing memory.
* DOCTOR BILGE DEMIRKOZ, Turkey
Physics
Piercing the secrets of cosmic radiation.
* DOCTOR TAMARA ELZEIN, Lebanon
Material Sciences
Trapping radioactivity.
* DOCTOR RAN LONG, China
Chemistry
Unlocking the potential of energy resources with nanochemistry.

EXAMINING THE PAST TO SHED LIGHT ON THE FUTURE – OR VICE VERSA

* DOCTOR FERNANDA WERNECK, Brazil
Biological Sciences
Predicting how animal biodiversity will evolve.
* DOCTOR SAM GILES, United Kingdom
Biological Sciences
Taking another look at the evolution of vertebrates thanks to their
braincases.
* DOCTOR ÁGNES KÓSPÁL, Hungary
Astronomy and Space Sciences
Looking at the birth of distant suns and planets to better understand
the solar system.

Congratulations to all of the winners!

You can find out more about these awards and others on the 2017 L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Awards webpage or on the For Women In Science website. (Again in honour of the 2017 International Women’s Day, I was the 92758th signer of the For Women in Science Manifesto.)

International Women’s Day origins

Thank you to Wikipedia (Note: Links have been removed),

International Women’s Day (IWD), originally called International Working Women’s Day, is celebrated on March 8 every year.[2] It commemorates the movement for women’s rights.

The earliest Women’s Day observance was held on February 28, 1909, in New York and organized by the Socialist Party of America.[3] On March 8, 1917, in the capital of the Russian Empire, Petrograd, a demonstration of women textile workers began, covering the whole city. This was the beginning of the Russian Revolution.[4] Seven days later, the Emperor of Russia Nicholas II abdicated and the provisional Government granted women the right to vote.[3] March 8 was declared a national holiday in Soviet Russia in 1917. The day was predominantly celebrated by the socialist movement and communist countries until it was adopted in 1975 by the United Nations.

It seems only fitting to bookend this post with another song (Happy International Women’s Day March 8, 2017),

While the lyrics are unabashedly romantic, the video is surprisingly moody with a bit of a ‘stalker vive’ although it does end up with her holding centre stage while singing and bouncing around in time to Walking on Sunshine.

Seeing the future with quantum computing

Researchers at the University of Sydney (Australia) have demonstrated the ability to see the ‘quantum future’ according to a Jan. 16, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily,

Scientists at the University of Sydney have demonstrated the ability to “see” the future of quantum systems, and used that knowledge to preempt their demise, in a major achievement that could help bring the strange and powerful world of quantum technology closer to reality.

The applications of quantum-enabled technologies are compelling and already demonstrating significant impacts — especially in the realm of sensing and metrology. And the potential to build exceptionally powerful quantum computers using quantum bits, or qubits, is driving investment from the world’s largest companies.

However a significant obstacle to building reliable quantum technologies has been the randomisation of quantum systems by their environments, or decoherence, which effectively destroys the useful quantum character.

The physicists have taken a technical quantum leap in addressing this, using techniques from big data to predict how quantum systems will change and then preventing the system’s breakdown from occurring.

A Jan. 14, 2017 University of Sydney press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

“Much the way the individual components in mobile phones will eventually fail, so too do quantum systems,” said the paper’s senior author Professor Michael J.  Biercuk.

“But in quantum technology the lifetime is generally measured in fractions of a second, rather than years.”

Professor Biercuk, from the University of Sydney’s School of Physics and a chief investigator at the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Engineered Quantum Systems, said his group had demonstrated it was possible to suppress decoherence in a preventive manner. The key was to develop a technique to predict how the system would disintegrate.

Professor Biercuk highlighted the challenges of making predictions in a quantum world: “Humans routinely employ predictive techniques in our daily experience; for instance, when we play tennis we predict where the ball will end up based on observations of the airborne ball,” he said.

“This works because the rules that govern how the ball will move, like gravity, are regular and known.  But what if the rules changed randomly while the ball was on its way to you?  In that case it’s next to impossible to predict the future behavior of that ball.

“And yet this situation is exactly what we had to deal with because the disintegration of quantum systems is random. Moreover, in the quantum realm observation erases quantumness, so our team needed to be able to guess how and when the system would randomly break.

“We effectively needed to swing at the randomly moving tennis ball while blindfolded.”

The team turned to machine learning for help in keeping their quantum systems – qubits realised in trapped atoms – from breaking.

What might look like random behavior actually contained enough information for a computer program to guess how the system would change in the future. It could then predict the future without direct observation, which would otherwise erase the system’s useful characteristics.

The predictions were remarkably accurate, allowing the team to use their guesses preemptively to compensate for the anticipated changes.

Doing this in real time allowed the team to prevent the disintegration of the quantum character, extending the useful lifetime of the qubits.

“We know that building real quantum technologies will require major advances in our ability to control and stabilise qubits – to make them useful in applications,” Professor Biercuk said.

Our techniques apply to any qubit, built in any technology, including the special superconducting circuits being used by major corporations.

“We’re excited to be developing new capabilities that turn quantum systems from novelties into useful technologies. The quantum future is looking better all the time,” Professor Biercuk said.

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

Prediction and real-time compensation of qubit decoherence via machine learning by Sandeep Mavadia, Virginia Frey, Jarrah Sastrawan, Stephen Dona, & Michael J. Biercuk. Nature Communications 8, Article number: 14106 (2017) doi:10.1038/ncomms14106 Published online: 16 January 2017

This paper is open access.

Clay nanosheets and world food security

This is some interesting agricultural research from Australia. From a Jan. 11, 2017 news item on phys.org,

A University of Queensland team has made a discovery that could help conquer the greatest threat to global food security – pests and diseases in plants.

Research leader Professor Neena Mitter said BioClay – an environmentally sustainable alternative to chemicals and pesticides – could be a game-changer for crop protection.

“In agriculture, the need for new control agents grows each year, driven by demand for greater production, the effects of climate change, community and regulatory demands, and toxicity and pesticide resistance,” she said.

“Our disruptive research involves a spray of nano-sized degradable clay used to release double-stranded RNA, that protects plants from specific disease-causing pathogens.”

The research, by scientists from the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation (QAAFI) and UQ’s Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (AIBN) is published in Nature Plants.

A Jan. 11, 2017 University of Queensland press release, which originated the news item, provides a bit more detail,

Professor Mitter said the technology reduced the use of pesticides without altering the genome of the plants.

“Once BioClay is applied, the plant ‘thinks’ it is being attacked by a disease or pest insect and responds by protecting itself from the targeted pest or disease.

“A single spray of BioClay protects the plant and then degrades, reducing the risk to the environment or human health.”

She said BioClay met consumer demands for sustainable crop protection and residue-free produce.

“The cleaner approach will value-add to the food and agri-business industry, contributing to global food security and to a cleaner, greener image of Queensland.”

AIBN’s Professor Zhiping Xu said BioClay combined nanotechnology and biotechnology.

“It will produce huge benefits for agriculture in the next several decades, and the applications will expand into a much wider field of primary agricultural production,” Professor Xu said.

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

Clay nanosheets for topical delivery of RNAi for sustained protection against plant viruses by Neena Mitter, Elizabeth A. Worrall, Karl E. Robinson, Peng Li, Ritesh G. Jain, Christelle Taochy, Stephen J. Fletcher, Bernard J. Carroll, G. Q. (Max) Lu & Zhi Ping Xu. Nature Plants 3, Article number: 16207 (2017) doi:10.1038/nplants.2016.207 Published online: 09 January 2017

This paper is behind a paywall.

I don’t usually do this but here’s the abstract for the paper,

Topical application of pathogen-specific double-stranded RNA (dsRNA) for virus resistance in plants represents an attractive alternative to transgenic RNA interference (RNAi). However, the instability of naked dsRNA sprayed on plants has been a major challenge towards its practical application. We demonstrate that dsRNA can be loaded on designer, non-toxic, degradable, layered double hydroxide (LDH) clay nanosheets. Once loaded on LDH, the dsRNA does not wash off, shows sustained release and can be detected on sprayed leaves even 30 days after application. We provide evidence for the degradation of LDH, dsRNA uptake in plant cells and silencing of homologous RNA on topical application. Significantly, a single spray of dsRNA loaded on LDH (BioClay) afforded virus protection for at least 20 days when challenged on sprayed and newly emerged unsprayed leaves. This innovation translates nanotechnology developed for delivery of RNAi for human therapeutics to use in crop protection as an environmentally sustainable and easy to adopt topical spray.

It helps a bit but I’m puzzled by the description of BioClay as an alternative to RNAi in the first sentence because the last sentence has: “This innovation translates nanotechnology developed for delivery of RNAi … .” I believe what they’re saying is that LDH clay nanosheets were developed for delivery of RNAi but have now been adapted for delivery of dsRNA. Maybe?

At any rate this paper is behind a paywall.

‘Smart’ fabric that’s bony

Researchers at Australia’s University of New South of Wales (UNSW) have devised a means of ‘weaving’ a material that mimics the bone tissue, periosteum according to a Jan. 11, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily,

For the first time, UNSW [University of New South Wales] biomedical engineers have woven a ‘smart’ fabric that mimics the sophisticated and complex properties of one nature’s ingenious materials, the bone tissue periosteum.

Having achieved proof of concept, the researchers are now ready to produce fabric prototypes for a range of advanced functional materials that could transform the medical, safety and transport sectors. Patents for the innovation are pending in Australia, the United States and Europe.

Potential future applications range from protective suits that stiffen under high impact for skiers, racing-car drivers and astronauts, through to ‘intelligent’ compression bandages for deep-vein thrombosis that respond to the wearer’s movement and safer steel-belt radial tyres.

A Jan. 11, 2017 UNSW press release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

Many animal and plant tissues exhibit ‘smart’ and adaptive properties. One such material is the periosteum, a soft tissue sleeve that envelops most bony surfaces in the body. The complex arrangement of collagen, elastin and other structural proteins gives periosteum amazing resilience and provides bones with added strength under high impact loads.

Until now, a lack of scalable ‘bottom-up’ approaches by researchers has stymied their ability to use smart tissues to create advanced functional materials.

UNSW’s Paul Trainor Chair of Biomedical Engineering, Professor Melissa Knothe Tate, said her team had for the first time mapped the complex tissue architectures of the periosteum, visualised them in 3D on a computer, scaled up the key components and produced prototypes using weaving loom technology.

“The result is a series of textile swatch prototypes that mimic periosteum’s smart stress-strain properties. We have also demonstrated the feasibility of using this technique to test other fibres to produce a whole range of new textiles,” Professor Knothe Tate said.

In order to understand the functional capacity of the periosteum, the team used an incredibly high fidelity imaging system to investigate and map its architecture.

“We then tested the feasibility of rendering periosteum’s natural tissue weaves using computer-aided design software,” Professor Knothe Tate said.

The computer modelling allowed the researchers to scale up nature’s architectural patterns to weave periosteum-inspired, multidimensional fabrics using a state-of-the-art computer-controlled jacquard loom. The loom is known as the original rudimentary computer, first unveiled in 1801.

“The challenge with using collagen and elastin is their fibres, that are too small to fit into the loom. So we used elastic material that mimics elastin and silk that mimics collagen,” Professor Knothe Tate said.

In a first test of the scaled-up tissue weaving concept, a series of textile swatch prototypes were woven, using specific combinations of collagen and elastin in a twill pattern designed to mirror periosteum’s weave. Mechanical testing of the swatches showed they exhibited similar properties found in periosteum’s natural collagen and elastin weave.

First author and biomedical engineering PhD candidate, Joanna Ng, said the technique had significant implications for the development of next-generation advanced materials and mechanically functional textiles.

While the materials produced by the jacquard loom have potential manufacturing applications – one tyremaker believes a titanium weave could spawn a new generation of thinner, stronger and safer steel-belt radials – the UNSW team is ultimately focused on the machine’s human potential.

“Our longer term goal is to weave biological tissues – essentially human body parts – in the lab to replace and repair our failing joints that reflect the biology, architecture and mechanical properties of the periosteum,” Ms Ng said.

An NHMRC development grant received in November [2016] will allow the team to take its research to the next phase. The researchers will work with the Cleveland Clinic and the University of Sydney’s Professor Tony Weiss to develop and commercialise prototype bone implants for pre-clinical research, using the ‘smart’ technology, within three years.

In searching for more information about this work, I found a Winter 2015 article (PDF; pp. 8-11) by Amy Coopes and Steve Offner for UNSW Magazine about Knothe Tate and her work (Note: In Australia, winter would be what we in the Northern Hemisphere consider summer),

Tucked away in a small room in UNSW’s Graduate School of Biomedical Engineering sits a 19th century–era weaver’s wooden loom. Operated by punch cards and hooks, the machine was the first rudimentary computer when it was unveiled in 1801. While on the surface it looks like a standard Jacquard loom, it has been enhanced with motherboards integrated into each of the loom’s five hook modules and connected to a computer. This state-of-the-art technology means complex algorithms control each of the 5,000 feed-in fibres with incredible precision.

That capacity means the loom can weave with an extraordinary variety of substances, from glass and titanium to rayon and silk, a development that has attracted industry attention around the world.

The interest lies in the natural advantage woven materials have over other manufactured substances. Instead of manipulating material to create new shades or hues as in traditional weaving, the fabrics’ mechanical properties can be modulated, to be stiff at one end, for example, and more flexible at the other.

“Instead of a pattern of colours we get a pattern of mechanical properties,” says Melissa Knothe Tate, UNSW’s Paul Trainor Chair of Biomedical Engineering. “Think of a rope; it’s uniquely good in tension and in bending. Weaving is naturally strong in that way.”


The interface of mechanics and physiology is the focus of Knothe Tate’s work. In March [2015], she travelled to the United States to present another aspect of her work at a meeting of the international Orthopedic Research Society in Las Vegas. That project – which has been dubbed “Google Maps for the body” – explores the interaction between cells and their environment in osteoporosis and other degenerative musculoskeletal conditions such as osteoarthritis.

Using previously top-secret semiconductor technology developed by optics giant Zeiss, and the same approach used by Google Maps to locate users with pinpoint accuracy, Knothe Tate and her team have created “zoomable” anatomical maps from the scale of a human joint down to a single cell.

She has also spearheaded a groundbreaking partnership that includes the Cleveland Clinic, and Brown and Stanford universities to help crunch terabytes of data gathered from human hip studies – all processed with the Google technology. Analysis that once took 25 years can now be done in a matter of weeks, bringing researchers ever closer to a set of laws that govern biological behaviour. [p. 9]

I gather she was recruited from the US to work at the University of New South Wales and this article was to highlight why they recruited her and to promote the university’s biomedical engineering department, which she chairs.

Getting back to 2017, here’s a link to and citation for the paper,

Scale-up of nature’s tissue weaving algorithms to engineer advanced functional materials by Joanna L. Ng, Lillian E. Knothe, Renee M. Whan, Ulf Knothe & Melissa L. Knothe Tate. Scientific Reports 7, Article number: 40396 (2017) doi:10.1038/srep40396 Published online: 11 January 2017

This paper is open access.

One final comment, that’s a lot of people (three out of five) with the last name Knothe in the author’s list for the paper.