Tag Archives: biomimetic

Dr. Wei Lu and bio-inspired ‘memristor’ chips

It’s been a while since I’ve featured Dr. Wei Lu’s work here. This April  15, 2010 posting features Lu’s most relevant previous work.) Here’s his latest ‘memristor’ work , from a May 22, 2017 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

Inspired by how mammals see, a new “memristor” computer circuit prototype at the University of Michigan has the potential to process complex data, such as images and video orders of magnitude, faster and with much less power than today’s most advanced systems.

Faster image processing could have big implications for autonomous systems such as self-driving cars, says Wei Lu, U-M professor of electrical engineering and computer science. Lu is lead author of a paper on the work published in the current issue of Nature Nanotechnology (“Sparse coding with memristor networks”).

Lu’s next-generation computer components use pattern recognition to shortcut the energy-intensive process conventional systems use to dissect images. In this new work, he and his colleagues demonstrate an algorithm that relies on a technique called “sparse coding” to coax their 32-by-32 array of memristors to efficiently analyze and recreate several photos.

A May 22, 2017 University of Michigan news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more information about memristors and about the research,

Memristors are electrical resistors with memory—advanced electronic devices that regulate current based on the history of the voltages applied to them. They can store and process data simultaneously, which makes them a lot more efficient than traditional systems. In a conventional computer, logic and memory functions are located at different parts of the circuit.

“The tasks we ask of today’s computers have grown in complexity,” Lu said. “In this ‘big data’ era, computers require costly, constant and slow communications between their processor and memory to retrieve large amounts data. This makes them large, expensive and power-hungry.”

But like neural networks in a biological brain, networks of memristors can perform many operations at the same time, without having to move data around. As a result, they could enable new platforms that process a vast number of signals in parallel and are capable of advanced machine learning. Memristors are good candidates for deep neural networks, a branch of machine learning, which trains computers to execute processes without being explicitly programmed to do so.

“We need our next-generation electronics to be able to quickly process complex data in a dynamic environment. You can’t just write a program to do that. Sometimes you don’t even have a pre-defined task,” Lu said. “To make our systems smarter, we need to find ways for them to process a lot of data more efficiently. Our approach to accomplish that is inspired by neuroscience.”

A mammal’s brain is able to generate sweeping, split-second impressions of what the eyes take in. One reason is because they can quickly recognize different arrangements of shapes. Humans do this using only a limited number of neurons that become active, Lu says. Both neuroscientists and computer scientists call the process “sparse coding.”

“When we take a look at a chair we will recognize it because its characteristics correspond to our stored mental picture of a chair,” Lu said. “Although not all chairs are the same and some may differ from a mental prototype that serves as a standard, each chair retains some of the key characteristics necessary for easy recognition. Basically, the object is correctly recognized the moment it is properly classified—when ‘stored’ in the appropriate category in our heads.”

Image of a memristor chip Image of a memristor chip Similarly, Lu’s electronic system is designed to detect the patterns very efficiently—and to use as few features as possible to describe the original input.

In our brains, different neurons recognize different patterns, Lu says.

“When we see an image, the neurons that recognize it will become more active,” he said. “The neurons will also compete with each other to naturally create an efficient representation. We’re implementing this approach in our electronic system.”

The researchers trained their system to learn a “dictionary” of images. Trained on a set of grayscale image patterns, their memristor network was able to reconstruct images of famous paintings and photos and other test patterns.

If their system can be scaled up, they expect to be able to process and analyze video in real time in a compact system that can be directly integrated with sensors or cameras.

The project is titled “Sparse Adaptive Local Learning for Sensing and Analytics.” Other collaborators are Zhengya Zhang and Michael Flynn of the U-M Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Garrett Kenyon of the Los Alamos National Lab and Christof Teuscher of Portland State University.

The work is part of a $6.9 million Unconventional Processing of Signals for Intelligent Data Exploitation project that aims to build a computer chip based on self-organizing, adaptive neural networks. It is funded by the [US] Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency [DARPA].

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

Sparse coding with memristor networks by Patrick M. Sheridan, Fuxi Cai, Chao Du, Wen Ma, Zhengya Zhang, & Wei D. Lu. Nature Nanotechnology (2017) doi:10.1038/nnano.2017.83 Published online 22 May 2017

This paper is behind a paywall.

For the interested, there are a number of postings featuring memristors here (just use ‘memristor’ as your search term in the blog search engine). You might also want to check out ‘neuromorphic engineeering’ and ‘neuromorphic computing’ and ‘artificial brain’.

Effective sunscreens from nature

The dream is to find sunscreens that don’t endanger humans or pollute the environment and it seems that Spanish scientists may have taken a step closer to making that dream a reality (from a Jan. 30, 2017 Wiley Publications press release (also on EurekAlert),

The ideal sunscreen should block UVB and UVA radiation while being safe and stable. In the journal Angewandte Chemie, Spanish scientists have introduced a new family of UVA and UVB filters based on natural sunscreen substances found in algae and cyanobacteria. They are highly stable and enhance the effectivity [sic] of commercial sunscreens.

Good news for sunseekers. Commercial [sic] available sunscreen lotions can very effectively protect from dangerous radiation in the ultraviolet [spectrum], but they need to be applied regularly and in high amounts to develop their full potential. One of the most critical issues is the limited stability of the UV filter molecules. Inspired by nature, Diego Sampedro and his colleagues from La Rioja University in Logrono and collaborators from Malaga University and Alcala University, Madrid, Spain, have screened a natural class of UV-protecting [blocking?] molecules for their possible use in skin protection. They adjusted the nature-given motif [sic] to the requirements of chemical synthesis and found that the molecules could indeed boost the sun protection factor of common formulations.

The natural sunscreen molecules are called microsporine-like amino acids (MAAs) and are widespread in the microbial world, most prominently in marine algae and cyanobacteria. MAAs are small molecules derived from amino acids, thermally stable, and they absorb light in the ultraviolet region, protecting the microbial DNA from radiation damage. Thus they are natural sunscreens, which inspired Sampedro and his colleagues to create [a] new class of organic sunscreen compounds.

Theoretical calculations revealed what is chemically needed for a successful design. “We performed a computer calculation of several basic scaffolds [..] to identify the simplest compound that fulfills the requisites for efficient sunscreens”, the authors write. The result of their search was a set of molecules which were readily synthesized, “avoiding the decorating substituents that come from the biosynthetic route.” Thus the small basic molecules can be tuned to give them more favorable properties.

The authors found that the synthesized compounds are characterized by excellent filter capacities in the relevant UV range. In addition they are photostable, much more than, for example, oxybenzene [sic] which is a widely used sunscreen in commercial formulations. They do not react chemically and dissipate radiation as heat (but not to such an extent that the skin temperature would rise as well). And, most importantly, when tested in real formulations, the sun protection factor (SPF) rose by a factor of more than two. Thus they could be promising targets for more stable, more efficient sunscreen lotions. Good news for your next summer vacation.

There’s some unusual phrasing so, I’m guessing that the writer it not accustomed to writing press releases in English. One other comment, it’s oxybenzone that’s often used as an ingredient in commercial sunscreens.

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

Rational Design and Synthesis of Efficient Sunscreens To Boost the Solar Protection Factor by Raúl Losantos, Ignacio Funes-Ardoiz, Dr. José Aguilera, Prof. Enrique Herrera-Ceballos, Dr. Cristina García-Iriepa, Prof. Pedro J. Campos, and Diego Sampedro. Angewandte Chemie International Edition Volume 56, Issue 10, pages 2632–2635, March 1, 2017 DOI: 10.1002/anie.201611627 Version of Record online: 27 JAN 2017

© 2017 Wiley-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

This paper is behind a paywall.

I have previously featured work on another natural sunscreen. In that case it was to be derived from English ivy (July 22, 2010 posting); there was an update on the English ivy work in a May 30, 2016 posting but the researcher has moved in a different direction looking at wound healing and armour as possible applications for the research.

Nanomechanics for deciphering beetle exoskeletons

Beetles carry remarkably light yet strong armor in the form of their exoskeletons and a research team at Northwestern University (US) is looking to those beetle exoskeletons for inspiration according to a Jan. 11, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily,

What can a beetle tell us about good design principles? Quite a lot, actually.

Many insects and crustaceans possess hard, armor-like exoskeletons that, in theory, should weigh the creatures down. But, instead, the exoskeletons are surprisingly light — even allowing the armor-wearing insects, like the beetle, to fly.

Northwestern Engineering’s Horacio D. Espinosa and his group are working to understand the underlying design principles and mechanical properties that result in structures with these unique, ideal properties. This work could ultimately uncover information that could guide the design and manufacturing of new and improved artificial materials by emulating these time-tested natural patterns, a process known as bio-mimicry.

Supported by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research’s Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative (MURI), the research was featured on the cover of Advanced Functional Materials. Postdoctoral fellows Ruiguo Yang and Wei Gao and graduate student Alireza Zaheri, all members of Espinosa’s laboratory, were co-first authors of the paper. Cheryl Hayashi, professor of biology at the University of California, Riverside, was also a co-author.

A Jan. 11, 2017 Northwestern University news release, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

Though there are more than a million species of beetles, the team is first studying the exoskeleton of the Cotinis mutabilis, a field crop pest beetle native to the western United States. Like all insects and crustaceans, its exoskeleton is composed of twisted plywood structures, known as Bouligand structures, which help protect against predators. Fibers in this Bouligand structure are bundles of chitin polymer chains wrapped with proteins. In this chain structure, each fiber has a higher density along the length than along the transverse.

“It is very challenging to characterize the properties of such fibers given that they are directionally dependent and have a small diameter of just 20 nanometers,” said Espinosa, the James N. and Nancy J. Farley Professor in Manufacturing and Entrepreneurship at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering. “We had to develop a novel characterization method by taking advantage of the spatial distribution of fibers in the Bouligand structure.”

To meet this challenge, Espinosa and his team employed a creative way to identify the geometry and material properties of the fibers that comprise the exoskeleton. They cut the Bouligand structure along a plane, resulting in a surface composed of closely packed cross-sections of fibers with different orientations. They were then able to analyze the mechanics of the fibers.

“With more than a million species, which greatly vary from each other in taxomic relatedness, size, and ecology, the beetle is the largest group of insects,” Hayashi said. “What makes this research exciting is that the methods applied to the Cotinis mutabilis beetle exoskeleton can be extended to other beetle species.”

By correlating the mechanical properties with the exoskeleton geometries from diverse beetle species, Espinosa and his team plan to gain insight into natural selection and better understand structure-function-properties relationships.

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

AFM Identification of Beetle Exocuticle: Bouligand Structure and Nanofiber Anisotropic Elastic Properties by Ruiguo Yang, Alireza Zaheri, Wei Gao, Cheryl Hayashi, and Horacio D. Espinosa. Advanced Functional Materials DOI: 10.1002/adfm.201603993 Version of Record online: 27 DEC 2016

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

This paper is behind a paywall.

Sea sponges don’t buckle under pressure

You wouldn’t think a sponge (the sea creature) was particularly tough but it is according to a Jan. 4, 2017 news item on Nanowerk,

Judging by their name alone, orange puffball sea sponges might seem unlikely paragons of structural strength. But maintaining their shape at the bottom of the churning ocean is critical to the creatures’ survival, and new research shows that tiny structural rods in their bodies have evolved the optimal shape to avoid buckling under pressure.

The rods, called strongyloxea spicules, measure about 2 millimeters long and are thinner than a human hair. Hundreds of them are bundled together, forming stiff rib-like structures inside the orange puffball’s spongy body. It was the odd and remarkably consistent shape of each spicule that caught the eye of Brown University engineers Haneesh Kesari and Michael Monn. Each one is symmetrically tapered along its length — going gradually from fatter in the middle to thinner at the ends.

Caption: Tiny rods found inside the bodies of orange puffball sea sponges have an interesting tapered shape. That shape, new research shows, turns out to be a match for the Clausen profile, a column shape shown to be optimal for resistance to buckling failure. Credit: Michael Monn, Haneesh Kesari / Brown University

A Jan. 4, 2017 Brown University news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, describes the research in more detail,

Using structural mechanics models and a bit of digging in obscure mathematics journals, Monn and Kesari showed the peculiar shape of the spicules to be optimal for resistance to buckling, the primary mode of failure for slender structures. This natural shape could provide a blueprint for increasing the buckling resistance in all kinds of slender human-made structures, from building columns to bicycle spokes to arterial stents, the researchers say.

“This is one of the rare examples that we’re aware of where a natural structure is not just well-suited for a given function, but actually approaches a theoretical optimum,” said Kesari, an assistant professor of engineering at Brown. “There’s no engineering analog for this shape — we don’t see any columns or other slender structures that are tapered in this way. So in this case, nature has shown us something quite new that we think could be useful in engineering.”

The findings are published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Function and form

Orange puffball sponges (Tethya aurantia) are native to the Mediterranean Sea. They live mainly in rocky coastal environments, where they’re subject to the constant stress of underwater waves and tidal forces. Sponges are filter feeders — they pump water through their bodies to extract nutrients and oxygen. To do this, their bodies need to be porous and compliant, but they also need enough stiffness to avoid being deformed too much.

“If you compress them too much, you’re essentially choking them,” Kesari said. “So maintaining their stiffness is critical to their survival.”

And that means the spicules, which make up the rib-like structures that give sponges their stiffness, are critical components. When Monn and Kesari saw the shapes of the spicules under a microscope, the consistency of the tapered shape from spicule to spicule was hard to miss.

“We saw the shape and wondered if there might be an engineering principle at work here,” Kesari said.

To figure that out, the researchers first needed to understand what forces were acting on each individual spicule. So Monn and Kesari developed a structural mechanics model of spicules bundled within a sponge’s ribs. The model showed that the mismatch in stiffness between the bulk of the sponge’s soft body and the more rigid spicules causes each spicule to experience primarily one type of mechanical loading — a compression load on each of its ends.

“You can imagine taking a toothpick and trying to squeeze it longways between your fingers,” Monn said. “That’s how these spicules see the world.”

The primary mode of failure for a structure with this mechanical load is through buckling. At a certain critical load, the structure starts to bend somewhere along its length. Once the bending starts, the force transferred by the load is amplified at the bending point, which causes the structure to break or collapse.

Once Kesari and Monn knew what forces were acting on the spicules and how they would fail, the next step was looking to see if there was anything special about them that helped them resist buckling. Scanning electron microscope images of the inside of a spicule and other tests showed that they were monolithic silica — essentially glass.

“We could see that there was no funny business going on with the material properties,” Monn said. “If there was anything contributing to its mechanical performance, it would have to be the shape.”

Optimal shape

Kesari and Monn combed the literature to see if they could find anything on tapering in slender structures. They came up empty in the modern engineering literature. But they found something interesting published more than 150 years ago by a German scientist named Thomas Clausen.

In 1851, Clausen proposed that columns that are tapered toward their ends should have more buckling resistance than plain cylinders, which had been and still are the primary design for architectural columns. In the 1960s, mathematician Joseph Keller published an ironclad mathematical proof that the Clausen column was indeed optimal for resistance to buckling — having 33 percent better resistance than a cylinder. Even compared to a very similar shape — an ellipse, which is slightly fatter in the middle and pointier at the ends — the Clausen column had 18 percent better buckling resistance.

Knowing what the optimal column shape is, Monn and Kesari started making precise dimensional measurements of dozens of spicules. They showed that their shapes were remarkably consistent and nearly identical to that of the Clausen column.

“The spicules were a match for the best shape of all possible column shapes,” Monn said.

It seems in this case, natural selection figured out something that engineers have not. Despite the fact that it’s been mathematically shown to be the optimal column shape, the Clausen profile isn’t widely known in the engineering community. Kesari and Monn hope this work might bring it out of the shadows.

“We see this as an addition to our library of structural designs,” Monn said. “We’re not just talking about an improvement of a few percent. This shape is 33 percent better than the cylinder, which is quite an improvement.”

In particular, the shape would be particularly useful in a new generation of materials made from nanoscale truss structures. “It would be easy to 3-D print the Clausen profile into these materials, and you’d get a tremendous increase in buckling resistance, which is often how these materials fail.”

Lessons from nature

The field of bio-inspired engineering began at a time when many people viewed adaptive evolution as an unceasing march toward perfection. If that were true, scientists should find untold numbers of optimal structures in nature.

But the modern understanding of evolution is a bit different. It’s now understood that in order for a trait to be conserved by natural selection, it doesn’t need to be optimal. It just needs to be good enough to work. That has put a bit of a damper on the enthusiasm for bio-inspired engineering, Kesari and Monn say.

However, they say, this work shows that nearly optimal structures are out there if researchers look in the right places. In this case, they looked at creatures from a very old phylum — sea sponges are among the very first animals on Earth — with plenty of time to evolve under consistent selection pressures.

Sponges are also fairly simple creatures, so understanding the function of a given trait is relatively straightforward. In this case, the spicule appears to have one and only one job to do — provide stiffness. Compare that to, for example, human bone, which not only provides support but must also accommodate arteries, provide attachment points for muscles and house bone marrow. Those other functions may cause tradeoffs in adaptations for strength or stiffness.

“With the sponges, you have lots of evolutionary pressure, lots of time and opportunity to respond to that pressure, and functional elements that can be easily identified,” Kesari said.

With those as guiding principles, there may well be more ideal structures out there waiting to be found.

“This work shows that nature can hit an optimum,” Kesari said, “and the biological world can still be hiding completely new designs of considerable technological significance in plain sight.”

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

A new structure-property connection in the skeletal elements of the marine sponge Tethya aurantia that guards against buckling instability by Michael A. Monn & Haneesh Kesari. Scientific Reports 7, Article number: 39547 (2017) doi:10.1038/srep39547 Published online: 04 January 2017

This paper is open access.

Kesari and Monn have researched sea sponges previously as can be seen in my April 7, 2015 posting, which highlights their work on strength and Venus’ flower basket sea sponge.

Smartphone battery inspired by your guts?

The conversion of bacteria from an enemy to be vanquished at all costs to a ‘frenemy’, a friendly enemy supplying possible solutions for problems is fascinating. An Oct. 26, 2016 news item on Nanowerk falls into the ‘frenemy’ camp,

A new prototype of a lithium-sulphur battery – which could have five times the energy density of a typical lithium-ion battery – overcomes one of the key hurdles preventing their commercial development by mimicking the structure of the cells which allow us to absorb nutrients.

Researchers have developed a prototype of a next-generation lithium-sulphur battery which takes its inspiration in part from the cells lining the human intestine. The batteries, if commercially developed, would have five times the energy density of the lithium-ion batteries used in smartphones and other electronics.

An Oct. 26, 2016 University of Cambridge press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on the theme and provides some good explanations of how lithium-ion batteries and lithium-sulphur batteries work (Note: A link has been removed),

The new design, by researchers from the University of Cambridge, overcomes one of the key technical problems hindering the commercial development of lithium-sulphur batteries, by preventing the degradation of the battery caused by the loss of material within it. The results are reported in the journal Advanced Functional Materials.

Working with collaborators at the Beijing Institute of Technology, the Cambridge researchers based in Dr Vasant Kumar’s team in the Department of Materials Science and Metallurgy developed and tested a lightweight nanostructured material which resembles villi, the finger-like protrusions which line the small intestine. In the human body, villi are used to absorb the products of digestion and increase the surface area over which this process can take place.

In the new lithium-sulphur battery, a layer of material with a villi-like structure, made from tiny zinc oxide wires, is placed on the surface of one of the battery’s electrodes. This can trap fragments of the active material when they break off, keeping them electrochemically accessible and allowing the material to be reused.

“It’s a tiny thing, this layer, but it’s important,” said study co-author Dr Paul Coxon from Cambridge’s Department of Materials Science and Metallurgy. “This gets us a long way through the bottleneck which is preventing the development of better batteries.”

A typical lithium-ion battery is made of three separate components: an anode (negative electrode), a cathode (positive electrode) and an electrolyte in the middle. The most common materials for the anode and cathode are graphite and lithium cobalt oxide respectively, which both have layered structures. Positively-charged lithium ions move back and forth from the cathode, through the electrolyte and into the anode.

The crystal structure of the electrode materials determines how much energy can be squeezed into the battery. For example, due to the atomic structure of carbon, each carbon atom can take on six lithium ions, limiting the maximum capacity of the battery.

Sulphur and lithium react differently, via a multi-electron transfer mechanism meaning that elemental sulphur can offer a much higher theoretical capacity, resulting in a lithium-sulphur battery with much higher energy density. However, when the battery discharges, the lithium and sulphur interact and the ring-like sulphur molecules transform into chain-like structures, known as a poly-sulphides. As the battery undergoes several charge-discharge cycles, bits of the poly-sulphide can go into the electrolyte, so that over time the battery gradually loses active material.

The Cambridge researchers have created a functional layer which lies on top of the cathode and fixes the active material to a conductive framework so the active material can be reused. The layer is made up of tiny, one-dimensional zinc oxide nanowires grown on a scaffold. The concept was trialled using commercially-available nickel foam for support. After successful results, the foam was replaced by a lightweight carbon fibre mat to reduce the battery’s overall weight.

“Changing from stiff nickel foam to flexible carbon fibre mat makes the layer mimic the way small intestine works even further,” said study co-author Dr Yingjun Liu.

This functional layer, like the intestinal villi it resembles, has a very high surface area. The material has a very strong chemical bond with the poly-sulphides, allowing the active material to be used for longer, greatly increasing the lifespan of the battery.

“This is the first time a chemically functional layer with a well-organised nano-architecture has been proposed to trap and reuse the dissolved active materials during battery charging and discharging,” said the study’s lead author Teng Zhao, a PhD student from the Department of Materials Science & Metallurgy. “By taking our inspiration from the natural world, we were able to come up with a solution that we hope will accelerate the development of next-generation batteries.”

For the time being, the device is a proof of principle, so commercially-available lithium-sulphur batteries are still some years away. Additionally, while the number of times the battery can be charged and discharged has been improved, it is still not able to go through as many charge cycles as a lithium-ion battery. However, since a lithium-sulphur battery does not need to be charged as often as a lithium-ion battery, it may be the case that the increase in energy density cancels out the lower total number of charge-discharge cycles.

“This is a way of getting around one of those awkward little problems that affects all of us,” said Coxon. “We’re all tied in to our electronic devices – ultimately, we’re just trying to make those devices work better, hopefully making our lives a little bit nicer.”

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

Advanced Lithium–Sulfur Batteries Enabled by a Bio-Inspired Polysulfide Adsorptive Brush by Teng Zhao, Yusheng Ye, Xiaoyu Peng, Giorgio Divitini, Hyun-Kyung Kim, Cheng-Yen Lao, Paul R. Coxon, Kai Xi, Yingjun Liu, Caterina Ducati, Renjie Chen, R. Vasant Kumar. Advanced Functional Materials DOI: 10.1002/adfm.201604069 First published: 26 October 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.

Caption: This is a computer visualization of villi-like battery material. Credit: Teng Zhao

Caption: This is a computer visualization of villi-like battery material. Credit: Teng Zhao

‘Robomussels’ for climate change

These ‘robomussels’ are not voting but they are being used to monitor mussel bed habitats according to an Oct. 17, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily,

Tiny robots have been helping researchers study how climate change affects biodiversity. Developed by Northeastern University scientist Brian Helmuth, the “robomussels” have the shape, size, and color of actual mussels, with miniature built-in sensors that track temperatures inside the mussel beds.

Caption: This is a robomussel, seen among living mussels and other sea creatures. Credit: Allison Matzelle

Caption: This is a robomussel, seen among living mussels and other sea creatures. Credit: Allison Matzelle

An Oct. 12, 2016 Northeastern University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes a project some 20 years in the making,

For the past 18 years, every 10 to 15 minutes, Helmuth and a global research team of 48 scientists have used robomussels to track internal body temperature, which is determined by the temperature of the surrounding air or water, and the amount of solar radiation the devices absorb. They place the robots inside mussel beds in oceans around the globe and record temperatures. The researchers have built a database of nearly two decades worth of data enabling scientists to pinpoint areas of unusual warming, intervene to help curb damage to vital marine ecosystems, and develop strategies that could prevent extinction of certain species.

Housed at Northeastern’s Marine Science Center in Nahant, Massachusetts, this largest-ever database is not only a remarkable way to track the effects of climate change, the findings can also reveal emerging hotspots so policymakers and scientists can step in and relieve stressors such as erosion and water acidification before it’s too late.

“They look exactly like mussels but they have little green blinking lights in them,” says Helmuth. “You basically pluck out a mussel and then glue the device to the rock right inside the mussel bed. They enable us to link our field observations with the physiological impact of global climate change on these ecologically and economically important animals.”

For ecological forecasters such as Helmuth, mussels act as a barometer of climate change. That’s because they rely on external sources of heat such as air temperature and sun exposure for their body heat and thrive, or not, depending on those conditions. Using fieldwork along with mathematical and computational models, Helmuth forecasts the patterns of growth, reproduction, and survival of mussels in intertidal zones.

Over the years, he and his colleagues have found surprises: “Our expectations of where to look for the effects of climate change in nature are more complex than anticipated,” says Helmuth. For example, in an earlier paper in the journal Science, his team found that hotspots existed not only at the southern end of the species’ distribution, in this case, southern California; they also existed at sites up north, in Oregon and Washington state.

“These datasets tell us when and where to look for the effects of climate change,” he says. “Without them we could miss early warning signs of trouble.”

The robomussels’ near-continuous measurements serve as an early warning system. “If we start to see sites where the animals are regularly getting to temperatures that are right below what kills them, we know that any slight increase is likely to send them over the edge, and we can act,” says Helmuth.

It’s not only the mussels that may be pulled back from the brink. The advance notice could inform everything from maintaining the biodiversity of coastal systems to determining the best–and worst–places to locate mussel farms.

“Losing mussel beds is essentially like clearing a forest,” says Helmuth. “If they go, everything that’s living in them will go. They are a major food supply for many species, including lobsters and crabs. They also function as filters along near-shore waters, clearing huge amounts of particulates. So losing them can affect everything from the growth of species we care about because we want to eat them to water clarity to biodiversity of all the tiny animals that live on the insides of the beds.”

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

Long-term, high frequency in situ measurements of intertidal mussel bed temperatures using biomimetic sensors by Brian Helmuth, Francis Choi, Gerardo Zardi.  Scientific Data 3, Article number: 160087 (2016) doi:10.1038/sdata.2016.87 Published online: 11 October 2016

This paper is open access.

Squeezing out ‘polymer opals’ for smart clothing and more

Researchers at the University of Cambridge have developed a technology for producing ‘polymer opals’ on industrial scales according to a June 3, 2016 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

Using a new method called Bend-Induced-Oscillatory-Shearing (BIOS), the researchers are now able to produce hundreds of metres of these materials, known as ‘polymer opals’, on a roll-to-roll process. The results are reported in the journal Nature Communications (“Large-scale ordering of nanoparticles using viscoelastic shear processing”).

A June 3, 2016 University of Cambridge press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail (Note: Links have been removed),

Researchers have devised a new method for stacking microscopic marbles into regular layers, producing intriguing materials which scatter light into intense colours, and which change colour when twisted or stretched.

Some of the brightest colours in nature can be found in opal gemstones, butterfly wings and beetles. These materials get their colour not from dyes or pigments, but from the systematically-ordered microstructures they contain.

The team behind the current research, based at Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory, have been working on methods of artificially recreating this ‘structural colour’ for several years, but to date, it has been difficult to make these materials using techniques that are cheap enough to allow their widespread use.

In order to make the polymer opals, the team starts by growing vats of transparent plastic nano-spheres. Each tiny sphere is solid in the middle but sticky on the outside. The spheres are then dried out into a congealed mass. By bending sheets containing a sandwich of these spheres around successive rollers the balls are magically forced into perfectly arranged stacks, by which stage they have intense colour.

By changing the sizes of the starting nano-spheres, different colours (or wavelengths) of light are reflected. And since the material has a rubber-like consistency, when it is twisted and stretched, the spacing between the spheres changes, causing the material to change colour. When stretched, the material shifts into the blue range of the spectrum, and when compressed, the colour shifts towards red. When released, the material returns to its original colour. Such chameleon materials could find their way into colour-changing wallpapers, or building coatings that reflect away infrared thermal radiation.

I always like it when there are quotes which seem spontaneous (from the press release),

“Finding a way to coax objects a billionth of a metre across into perfect formation over kilometre scales is a miracle [emphasis mine],” said Professor Jeremy Baumberg, the paper’s senior author. “But spheres are only the first step, as it should be applicable to more complex architectures on tiny scales.”

In order to make polymer opals in large quantities, the team first needed to understand their internal structure so that it could be replicated. Using a variety of techniques, including electron microscopy, x-ray scattering, rheology and optical spectroscopy, the researchers were able to see the three-dimensional position of the spheres within the material, measure how the spheres slide past each other, and how the colours change.

“It’s wonderful [emphasis mine] to finally understand the secrets of these attractive films,” said PhD student Qibin Zhao, the paper’s lead author.

There’s also the commercialization aspect to this work (from the press release),

Cambridge Enterprise, the University’s commercialisation arm which is helping to commercialise the material, has been contacted by more than 100 companies interested in using polymer opals, and a new spin-out Phomera Technologies has been founded. Phomera will look at ways of scaling up production of polymer opals, as well as selling the material to potential buyers. Possible applications the company is considering include coatings for buildings to reflect heat, smart clothing and footwear, or for banknote security [emphasis mine] and packaging applications.

There is a Canadian company already selling its anti-counterfeiting (banknote security) bioinspired technology. It’s called Opalux and it’s not the only bioinspired anti-counterfeiting Canadian technology company, there’s also NanoTech Security which takes its inspiration from a butterfly (Blue Morpho) wing.

Getting back to Cambridge, here’s a link to and a citation for the research team’s paper,

Large-scale ordering of nanoparticles using viscoelastic shear processing by Qibin Zhao, Chris E. Finlayson, David R. E. Snoswell, Andrew Haines, Christian Schäfer, Peter Spahn, Goetz P. Hellmann, Andrei V. Petukhov, Lars Herrmann, Pierre Burdet, Paul A. Midgley, Simon Butler, Malcolm Mackley, Qixin Guo, & Jeremy J. Baumberg. Nature Communications 7, Article number: 11661  doi:10.1038/ncomms11661 Published 03 June 2016

This paper is open access.

There is a video demonstrating the stretchability of their ‘polymer opal’ film

It was posted on YouTube three years ago when the researchers were first successful. It’s nice to see they’ve been successful at getting the technology to the commercialization stage.

Green Hairstreak butterfly could make computer screens more brilliant

When talking about mimicking the nanostructures on butterfly wings, the butterfly in question is the Blue Morpho, usually. In a change of pace, researchers at Australia’s Swinburne University of Technology have focused their attention on the Green Hairstreak butterfly,

Nanostructures on the wings of the Callophrys Rubi or Green Hairstreak butterfly have inspired the design of an artificial material that could be used in photonics and optics technologies. Courtesy: Swinburne University of Technology

Nanostructures on the wings of the Callophrys Rubi or Green Hairstreak butterfly have inspired the design of an artificial material that could be used in photonics and optics technologies. Courtesy: Swinburne University of Technology

A June 1, 2016 Swinburne University of Technology press release describes the work,

Inspired by the intricate structure of a butterfly wing, Swinburne researchers have developed a technique that could be used to make more brilliant computer screens.

The researchers used a special printing technique to create tiny structures similar to those found in the wings of the Callophrys Rubi butterfly, also known as the Green Hairstreak.

In some iridescent butterfly wings, such as the Green Hairstreak, the wing is made up of a pattern of intertwining and curved surfaces, known as a gyroid structure.  This gyroid structure has amazing properties when it comes to its interactions with light.

The researchers used two-beams of light to print at a super-resolution, creating gyroid structures that are three-dimensional and mechanically strong.

Lead author Dr Zongsong Gan from Swinburne’s Centre for Micro-Photonics says that materials made from these artificial gyroids should respond to light at ultrafast speeds making them ideal for high-speed switches.

He says the technique has two significant advantages.

“The first is that it has improved resolution and the second is that the materials fabricated with this technique have better mechanical strength.

“These new gyroid structures could help make more compact light based electronics because, thanks to their smaller size, larger numbers of devices can be integrated onto a single chip.

“However, for three-dimensional devices, smaller and more compact also means there is a higher risk of structure collapse because of weaker mechanical strength.

“Our fabrication technique allows us to make stronger architectures to overcome this problem,” Dr Gan says.

Here’s an image illustrating the work,

Comparison of natural gyroid structure with artificial structure. Courtesy: Swinburne University of Technology

Comparison of natural gyroid structure with artificial structure. Courtesy: Swinburne University of Technology

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

Biomimetic gyroid nanostructures exceeding their natural origins by Zongsong Gan, Mark D. Turner, and Min Gu. Science Advances  13 May 2016: Vol. 2, no. 5, e1600084
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1600084

This appears to be an open access paper,

Making better concrete by looking to nature for inspiration

Researchers from the Masssachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are working on a new formula for concrete based on bones, shells, and other such natural materials. From a May 25, 2016 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

Researchers at MIT are seeking to redesign concrete — the most widely used human-made material in the world — by following nature’s blueprints.

In a paper published online in the journal Construction and Building Materials (“Roadmap across the mesoscale for durable and sustainable cement paste – A bioinspired approach”), the team contrasts cement paste — concrete’s binding ingredient — with the structure and properties of natural materials such as bones, shells, and deep-sea sponges. As the researchers observed, these biological materials are exceptionally strong and durable, thanks in part to their precise assembly of structures at multiple length scales, from the molecular to the macro, or visible, level.

A May 26, 2016 MIT news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail,

From their observations, the team, led by Oral Buyukozturk, a professor in MIT’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE), proposed a new bioinspired, “bottom-up” approach for designing cement paste.

“These materials are assembled in a fascinating fashion, with simple constituents arranging in complex geometric configurations that are beautiful to observe,” Buyukozturk says. “We want to see what kinds of micromechanisms exist within them that provide such superior properties, and how we can adopt a similar building-block-based approach for concrete.”

Ultimately, the team hopes to identify materials in nature that may be used as sustainable and longer-lasting alternatives to Portland cement, which requires a huge amount of energy to manufacture.

“If we can replace cement, partially or totally, with some other materials that may be readily and amply available in nature, we can meet our objectives for sustainability,” Buyukozturk says.

“The merger of theory, computation, new synthesis, and characterization methods have enabled a paradigm shift that will likely change the way we produce this ubiquitous material, forever,” Buehler says. “It could lead to more durable roads, bridges, structures, reduce the carbon and energy footprint, and even enable us to sequester carbon dioxide as the material is made. Implementing nanotechnology in concrete is one powerful example [of how] to scale up the power of nanoscience to solve grand engineering challenges.”

From molecules to bridges

Today’s concrete is a random assemblage of crushed rocks and stones, bound together by a cement paste. Concrete’s strength and durability depends partly on its internal structure and configuration of pores. For example, the more porous the material, the more vulnerable it is to cracking. However, there are no techniques available to precisely control concrete’s internal structure and overall properties.

“It’s mostly guesswork,” Buyukozturk says. “We want to change the culture and start controlling the material at the mesoscale.”

As Buyukozturk describes it, the “mesoscale” represents the connection between microscale structures and macroscale properties. For instance, how does cement’s microscopic arrangement affect the overall strength and durability of a tall building or a long bridge? Understanding this connection would help engineers identify features at various length scales that would improve concrete’s overall performance.

“We’re dealing with molecules on the one hand, and building a structure that’s on the order of kilometers in length on the other,” Buyukozturk says. “How do we connect the information we develop at the very small scale, to the information at the large scale? This is the riddle.”

Building from the bottom, up

To start to understand this connection, he and his colleagues looked to biological materials such as bone, deep sea sponges, and nacre (an inner shell layer of mollusks), which have all been studied extensively for their mechanical and microscopic properties. They looked through the scientific literature for information on each biomaterial, and compared their structures and behavior, at the nano-, micro-, and macroscales, with that of cement paste.

They looked for connections between a material’s structure and its mechanical properties. For instance, the researchers found that a deep sea sponge’s onion-like structure of silica layers provides a mechanism for preventing cracks. Nacre has a “brick-and-mortar” arrangement of minerals that generates a strong bond between the mineral layers, making the material extremely tough.

“In this context, there is a wide range of multiscale characterization and computational modeling techniques that are well established for studying the complexities of biological and biomimetic materials, which can be easily translated into the cement community,” says Masic.

Applying the information they learned from investigating biological materials, as well as knowledge they gathered on existing cement paste design tools, the team developed a general, bioinspired framework, or methodology, for engineers to design cement, “from the bottom up.”

The framework is essentially a set of guidelines that engineers can follow, in order to determine how certain additives or ingredients of interest will impact cement’s overall strength and durability. For instance, in a related line of research, Buyukozturk is looking into volcanic ash [emphasis mine] as a cement additive or substitute. To see whether volcanic ash would improve cement paste’s properties, engineers, following the group’s framework, would first use existing experimental techniques, such as nuclear magnetic resonance, scanning electron microscopy, and X-ray diffraction to characterize volcanic ash’s solid and pore configurations over time.

Researchers could then plug these measurements into models that simulate concrete’s long-term evolution, to identify mesoscale relationships between, say, the properties of volcanic ash and the material’s contribution to the strength and durability of an ash-containing concrete bridge. These simulations can then be validated with conventional compression and nanoindentation experiments, to test actual samples of volcanic ash-based concrete.

Ultimately, the researchers hope the framework will help engineers identify ingredients that are structured and evolve in a way, similar to biomaterials, that may improve concrete’s performance and longevity.

“Hopefully this will lead us to some sort of recipe for more sustainable concrete,” Buyukozturk says. “Typically, buildings and bridges are given a certain design life. Can we extend that design life maybe twice or three times? That’s what we aim for. Our framework puts it all on paper, in a very concrete way, for engineers to use.”

This is not the only team looking at new methods for producing the material, my Dec. 24, 2012 posting features a number of ‘concrete’ research projects.

Also, I highlighted the reference to ‘volcanic ash’ as it reminded me of Roman concrete which has lasted for over 2000 years and includes volcanic sand and volcanic rock.  You can read more about it in a Dec. 18, 2014 article by Mark Miller for Ancient Origins where he describes the wonders of the material and what was then a recent discovery of the Romans’ recipe.

I have two links and citations, first, the MIT paper, then the paper on Roman concrete.

Roadmap across the mesoscale for durable and sustainable cement paste – A bioinspired approach by Steven D. Palkovic, Dieter B. Brommer, Kunal Kupwade-Patil, Admir Masic, Markus J. Buehler, Oral Büyüköztürk.Construction and Building Materials Volume 115, 15 July 2016, Pages 13–31.  doi:10.1016/j.conbuildmat.2016.04.020

Mechanical resilience and cementitious processes in Imperial Roman architectural mortar by Marie D. Jackson, Eric N. Landis, Philip F. Brune, Massimo Vitti, Heng Chen, Qinfei Li, Martin Kunz, Hans-Rudolf Wenk, Paulo J. M. Monteiro, and Anthony R. Ingraffea. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences  vol. 111 no. 52 18484–18489, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1417456111

The first paper is behind a paywall but the second one appears to be open access.

Spider webs inspire liquid wire

Courtesy University of Oxford

Courtesy University of Oxford

Usually, when science talk runs to spider webs the focus is on strength but this research from the UK and France is all about resilience. From a May 16, 2016 news item on phys.org,

Why doesn’t a spider’s web sag in the wind or catapult flies back out like a trampoline? The answer, according to new research by an international team of scientists, lies in the physics behind a ‘hybrid’ material produced by spiders for their webs.

Pulling on a sticky thread in a garden spider’s orb web and letting it snap back reveals that the thread never sags but always stays taut—even when stretched to many times its original length. This is because any loose thread is immediately spooled inside the tiny droplets of watery glue that coat and surround the core gossamer fibres of the web’s capture spiral.

This phenomenon is described in the journal PNAS by scientists from the University of Oxford, UK and the Université Pierre et Marie Curie, Paris, France.

The researchers studied the details of this ‘liquid wire’ technique in spiders’ webs and used it to create composite fibres in the laboratory which, just like the spider’s capture silk, extend like a solid and compress like a liquid. These novel insights may lead to new bio-inspired technology.

A May 16, 2016 University of Oxford press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail,

Professor Fritz Vollrath of the Oxford Silk Group in the Department of Zoology at Oxford University said: ‘The thousands of tiny droplets of glue that cover the capture spiral of the spider’s orb web do much more than make the silk sticky and catch the fly. Surprisingly, each drop packs enough punch in its watery skins to reel in loose bits of thread. And this winching behaviour is used to excellent effect to keep the threads tight at all times, as we can all observe and test in the webs in our gardens.’

The novel properties observed and analysed by the scientists rely on a subtle balance between fibre elasticity and droplet surface tension. Importantly, the team was also able to recreate this technique in the laboratory using oil droplets on a plastic filament. And this artificial system behaved just like the spider’s natural winch silk, with spools of filament reeling and unreeling inside the oil droplets as the thread extended and contracted.

Dr Hervé Elettro, the first author and a doctoral researcher at Institut Jean Le Rond D’Alembert, Université Pierre et Marie Curie, Paris, said: ‘Spider silk has been known to be an extraordinary material for around 40 years, but it continues to amaze us. While the web is simply a high-tech trap from the spider’s point of view, its properties have a huge amount to offer the worlds of materials, engineering and medicine.

‘Our bio-inspired hybrid threads could be manufactured from virtually any components. These new insights could lead to a wide range of applications, such as microfabrication of complex structures, reversible micro-motors, or self-tensioned stretchable systems.’

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

In-drop capillary spooling of spider capture thread inspires hybrid fibers with mixed solid–liquid mechanical properties by Hervé Elettro, Sébastien Neukirch, Fritz Vollrath, and Arnaud Antkowiak. PNAS doi: 10.1073/pnas.1602451113

This paper appears to be open access.