Tag Archives: Czech Republic

NanoFARM: food, agriculture, and nanoparticles

The research focus for the NanoFARM consortium is on pesticides according to an October 19, 2017 news item on Nanowerk,

The answer to the growing, worldwide food production problem may have a tiny solution—nanoparticles, which are being explored as both fertilizers and fungicides for crops.

NanoFARM – research consortium formed between Carnegie Mellon University [US], the University of Kentucky [US], the University of Vienna [Austria], and Aveiro University in Prague [Czech Republic] – is studying the effects of nanoparticles on agriculture. The four universities received grants from their countries’ respective National Science Foundations to discover how these tiny particles – some just 4 nanometers in diameter – can revolutionize how farmers grow their food.

An October ??, 2017 Carnegie Mellon University news release by Adam Dove, which originated the news item, fills in a few more details,

“What we’re doing is getting a fundamental understanding of nanoparticle-to-plant interactions to enable future applications,” says Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) Professor Greg Lowry, the principal investigator for the nanoFARM project. “With pesticides, less than 5% goes into the crop—the rest just goes into the environment and does harmful things. What we’re trying to do is minimize that waste and corresponding environmental damage by doing a better job of targeting the delivery.”

The teams are looking at related questions: How much nanomaterial is needed to help crops when it comes to driving away pests and delivering nutrients, and how much could potentially hurt plants or surrounding ecosystems?

Applied pesticides and fertilizers are vulnerable to washing away—especially if there’s a rainstorm soon after application. But nanoparticles are not so easily washed off, making them extremely efficient for delivering micronutrients like zinc or copper to crops.

“If you put in zinc oxide nanoparticles instead, it might take days or weeks to dissolve, providing a slow, long-term delivery system.”

Gao researches the rate at which nanoparticles dissolve. His most recent finding is that nanoparticles of copper oxide take up to 20-30 days to dissolve in soil, meaning that they can deliver nutrients to plants at a steady rate over that time period.

“In many developing countries, a huge number of people are starving,” says Gao. “This kind of technology can help provide food and save energy.”

But Gao’s research is only one piece of the NanoFARM puzzle. Lowry recently traveled to Australia with Ph.D. student Eleanor Spielman-Sun to explore how differently charged nanoparticles were absorbed into wheat plants.

They learned that negatively charged particles were able to move into the veins of a plant—making them a good fit for a farmer who wanted to apply a fungicide. Neutrally charged particles went into the tissue of the leaves, which would be beneficial for growers who wanted to fortify a food with nutritional value.

Lowry said they are still a long way from signing off on a finished product for all crops—right now they are concentrating on tomato and wheat plants. But with the help of their university partners, they are slowly creating new nano-enabled agrochemicals for more efficient and environmentally friendly agriculture.

For more information, you can find the NanoFARM website here.

Robots in Vancouver and in Canada (one of two)

This piece just started growing. It started with robot ethics, moved on to sexbots and news of an upcoming Canadian robotics roadmap. Then, it became a two-part posting with the robotics strategy (roadmap) moving to part two along with robots and popular culture and a further  exploration of robot and AI ethics issues..

What is a robot?

There are lots of robots, some are macroscale and others are at the micro and nanoscales (see my Sept. 22, 2017 posting for the latest nanobot). Here’s a definition from the Robot Wikipedia entry that covers all the scales. (Note: Links have been removed),

A robot is a machine—especially one programmable by a computer— capable of carrying out a complex series of actions automatically.[2] Robots can be guided by an external control device or the control may be embedded within. Robots may be constructed to take on human form but most robots are machines designed to perform a task with no regard to how they look.

Robots can be autonomous or semi-autonomous and range from humanoids such as Honda’s Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility (ASIMO) and TOSY’s TOSY Ping Pong Playing Robot (TOPIO) to industrial robots, medical operating robots, patient assist robots, dog therapy robots, collectively programmed swarm robots, UAV drones such as General Atomics MQ-1 Predator, and even microscopic nano robots. [emphasis mine] By mimicking a lifelike appearance or automating movements, a robot may convey a sense of intelligence or thought of its own.

We may think we’ve invented robots but the idea has been around for a very long time (from the Robot Wikipedia entry; Note: Links have been removed),

Many ancient mythologies, and most modern religions include artificial people, such as the mechanical servants built by the Greek god Hephaestus[18] (Vulcan to the Romans), the clay golems of Jewish legend and clay giants of Norse legend, and Galatea, the mythical statue of Pygmalion that came to life. Since circa 400 BC, myths of Crete include Talos, a man of bronze who guarded the Cretan island of Europa from pirates.

In ancient Greece, the Greek engineer Ctesibius (c. 270 BC) “applied a knowledge of pneumatics and hydraulics to produce the first organ and water clocks with moving figures.”[19][20] In the 4th century BC, the Greek mathematician Archytas of Tarentum postulated a mechanical steam-operated bird he called “The Pigeon”. Hero of Alexandria (10–70 AD), a Greek mathematician and inventor, created numerous user-configurable automated devices, and described machines powered by air pressure, steam and water.[21]

The 11th century Lokapannatti tells of how the Buddha’s relics were protected by mechanical robots (bhuta vahana yanta), from the kingdom of Roma visaya (Rome); until they were disarmed by King Ashoka. [22] [23]

In ancient China, the 3rd century text of the Lie Zi describes an account of humanoid automata, involving a much earlier encounter between Chinese emperor King Mu of Zhou and a mechanical engineer known as Yan Shi, an ‘artificer’. Yan Shi proudly presented the king with a life-size, human-shaped figure of his mechanical ‘handiwork’ made of leather, wood, and artificial organs.[14] There are also accounts of flying automata in the Han Fei Zi and other texts, which attributes the 5th century BC Mohist philosopher Mozi and his contemporary Lu Ban with the invention of artificial wooden birds (ma yuan) that could successfully fly.[17] In 1066, the Chinese inventor Su Song built a water clock in the form of a tower which featured mechanical figurines which chimed the hours.

The beginning of automata is associated with the invention of early Su Song’s astronomical clock tower featured mechanical figurines that chimed the hours.[24][25][26] His mechanism had a programmable drum machine with pegs (cams) that bumped into little levers that operated percussion instruments. The drummer could be made to play different rhythms and different drum patterns by moving the pegs to different locations.[26]

In Renaissance Italy, Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) sketched plans for a humanoid robot around 1495. Da Vinci’s notebooks, rediscovered in the 1950s, contained detailed drawings of a mechanical knight now known as Leonardo’s robot, able to sit up, wave its arms and move its head and jaw.[28] The design was probably based on anatomical research recorded in his Vitruvian Man. It is not known whether he attempted to build it.

In Japan, complex animal and human automata were built between the 17th to 19th centuries, with many described in the 18th century Karakuri zui (Illustrated Machinery, 1796). One such automaton was the karakuri ningyō, a mechanized puppet.[29] Different variations of the karakuri existed: the Butai karakuri, which were used in theatre, the Zashiki karakuri, which were small and used in homes, and the Dashi karakuri which were used in religious festivals, where the puppets were used to perform reenactments of traditional myths and legends.

The term robot was coined by a Czech writer (from the Robot Wikipedia entry; Note: Links have been removed)

‘Robot’ was first applied as a term for artificial automata in a 1920 play R.U.R. by the Czech writer, Karel Čapek. However, Josef Čapek was named by his brother Karel as the true inventor of the term robot.[6][7] The word ‘robot’ itself was not new, having been in Slavic language as robota (forced laborer), a term which classified those peasants obligated to compulsory service under the feudal system widespread in 19th century Europe (see: Robot Patent).[37][38] Čapek’s fictional story postulated the technological creation of artificial human bodies without souls, and the old theme of the feudal robota class eloquently fit the imagination of a new class of manufactured, artificial workers.

I’m particularly fascinated by how long humans have been imagining and creating robots.

Robot ethics in Vancouver

The Westender, has run what I believe is the first article by a local (Vancouver, Canada) mainstream media outlet on the topic of robots and ethics. Tessa Vikander’s Sept. 14, 2017 article highlights two local researchers, Ajung Moon and Mark Schmidt, and a local social media company’s (Hootsuite), analytics director, Nik Pai. Vikander opens her piece with an ethical dilemma (Note: Links have been removed),

Emma is 68, in poor health and an alcoholic who has been told by her doctor to stop drinking. She lives with a care robot, which helps her with household tasks.

Unable to fix herself a drink, she asks the robot to do it for her. What should the robot do? Would the answer be different if Emma owns the robot, or if she’s borrowing it from the hospital?

This is the type of hypothetical, ethical question that Ajung Moon, director of the Open Roboethics Initiative [ORI], is trying to answer.

According to an ORI study, half of respondents said ownership should make a difference, and half said it shouldn’t. With society so torn on the question, Moon is trying to figure out how engineers should be programming this type of robot.

A Vancouver resident, Moon is dedicating her life to helping those in the decision-chair make the right choice. The question of the care robot is but one ethical dilemma in the quickly advancing world of artificial intelligence.

At the most sensationalist end of the scale, one form of AI that’s recently made headlines is the sex robot, which has a human-like appearance. A report from the Foundation for Responsible Robotics says that intimacy with sex robots could lead to greater social isolation [emphasis mine] because they desensitize people to the empathy learned through human interaction and mutually consenting relationships.

I’ll get back to the impact that robots might have on us in part two but first,

Sexbots, could they kill?

For more about sexbots in general, Alessandra Maldonado wrote an Aug. 10, 2017 article for salon.com about them (Note: A link has been removed),

Artificial intelligence has given people the ability to have conversations with machines like never before, such as speaking to Amazon’s personal assistant Alexa or asking Siri for directions on your iPhone. But now, one company has widened the scope of what it means to connect with a technological device and created a whole new breed of A.I. — specifically for sex-bots.

Abyss Creations has been in the business of making hyperrealistic dolls for 20 years, and by the end of 2017, they’ll unveil their newest product, an anatomically correct robotic sex toy. Matt McMullen, the company’s founder and CEO, explains the goal of sex robots is companionship, not only a physical partnership. “Imagine if you were completely lonely and you just wanted someone to talk to, and yes, someone to be intimate with,” he said in a video depicting the sculpting process of the dolls. “What is so wrong with that? It doesn’t hurt anybody.”

Maldonado also embedded this video into her piece,

A friend of mine described it as creepy. Specifically we were discussing why someone would want to programme ‘insecurity’ as a  desirable trait in a sexbot.

Marc Beaulieu’s concept of a desirable trait in a sexbot is one that won’t kill him according to his Sept. 25, 2017 article on Canadian Broadcasting News (CBC) online (Note: Links have been removed),

Harmony has a charming Scottish lilt, albeit a bit staccato and canny. Her eyes dart around the room, her chin dips as her eyebrows raise in coquettish fashion. Her face manages expressions that are impressively lifelike. That face comes in 31 different shapes and 5 skin tones, with or without freckles and it sticks to her cyber-skull with magnets. Just peel it off and switch it out at will. In fact, you can choose Harmony’s eye colour, body shape (in great detail) and change her hair too. Harmony, of course, is a sex bot. A very advanced one. How advanced is she? Well, if you have $12,332 CAD to put towards a talkative new home appliance, REALBOTIX says you could be having a “conversation” and relations with her come January. Happy New Year.

Caveat emptor though: one novel bonus feature you might also get with Harmony is her ability to eventually murder you in your sleep. And not because she wants to.

Dr Nick Patterson, faculty of Science Engineering and Built Technology at Deakin University in Australia is lending his voice to a slew of others warning us to slow down and be cautious as we steadily approach Westworldian levels of human verisimilitude with AI tech. Surprisingly, Patterson didn’t regurgitate the narrative we recognize from the popular sci-fi (increasingly non-fi actually) trope of a dystopian society’s futile resistance to a robocalypse. He doesn’t think Harmony will want to kill you. He thinks she’ll be hacked by a code savvy ne’er-do-well who’ll want to snuff you out instead. …

Embedded in Beaulieu’s article is another video of the same sexbot profiled earlier. Her programmer seems to have learned a thing or two (he no longer inputs any traits as you’re watching),

I guess you could get one for Christmas this year if you’re willing to wait for an early 2018 delivery and aren’t worried about hackers turning your sexbot into a killer. While the killer aspect might seem farfetched, it turns out it’s not the only sexbot/hacker issue.

Sexbots as spies

This Oct. 5, 2017 story by Karl Bode for Techdirt points out that sex toys that are ‘smart’ can easily be hacked for any reason including some mischief (Note: Links have been removed),

One “smart dildo” manufacturer was recently forced to shell out $3.75 million after it was caught collecting, err, “usage habits” of the company’s customers. According to the lawsuit, Standard Innovation’s We-Vibe vibrator collected sensitive data about customer usage, including “selected vibration settings,” the device’s battery life, and even the vibrator’s “temperature.” At no point did the company apparently think it was a good idea to clearly inform users of this data collection.

But security is also lacking elsewhere in the world of internet-connected sex toys. Alex Lomas of Pentest Partners recently took a look at the security in many internet-connected sex toys, and walked away arguably unimpressed. Using a Bluetooth “dongle” and antenna, Lomas drove around Berlin looking for openly accessible sex toys (he calls it “screwdriving,” in a riff off of wardriving). He subsequently found it’s relatively trivial to discover and hijack everything from vibrators to smart butt plugs — thanks to the way Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) connectivity works:

“The only protection you have is that BLE devices will generally only pair with one device at a time, but range is limited and if the user walks out of range of their smartphone or the phone battery dies, the adult toy will become available for others to connect to without any authentication. I should say at this point that this is purely passive reconnaissance based on the BLE advertisements the device sends out – attempting to connect to the device and actually control it without consent is not something I or you should do. But now one could drive the Hush’s motor to full speed, and as long as the attacker remains connected over BLE and not the victim, there is no way they can stop the vibrations.”

Does that make you think twice about a sexbot?

Robots and artificial intelligence

Getting back to the Vikander article (Sept. 14, 2017), Moon or Vikander or both seem to have conflated artificial intelligence with robots in this section of the article,

As for the building blocks that have thrust these questions [care robot quandary mentioned earlier] into the spotlight, Moon explains that AI in its basic form is when a machine uses data sets or an algorithm to make a decision.

“It’s essentially a piece of output that either affects your decision, or replaces a particular decision, or supports you in making a decision.” With AI, we are delegating decision-making skills or thinking to a machine, she says.

Although we’re not currently surrounded by walking, talking, independently thinking robots, the use of AI [emphasis mine] in our daily lives has become widespread.

For Vikander, the conflation may have been due to concerns about maintaining her word count and for Moon, it may have been one of convenience or a consequence of how the jargon is evolving with ‘robot’ meaning a machine specifically or, sometimes, a machine with AI or AI only.

To be precise, not all robots have AI and not all AI is found in robots. It’s a distinction that may be more important for people developing robots and/or AI but it also seems to make a difference where funding is concerned. In a March 24, 2017 posting about the 2017 Canadian federal budget I noticed this,

… The Canadian Institute for Advanced Research will receive $93.7 million [emphasis mine] to “launch a Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy … (to) position Canada as a world-leading destination for companies seeking to invest in artificial intelligence and innovation.”

This brings me to a recent set of meetings held in Vancouver to devise a Canadian robotics roadmap, which suggests the robotics folks feel they need specific representation and funding.

See: part two for the rest.

Nanocellulose as a biosensor

While nanocellulose always makes my antennae quiver (for anyone unfamiliar with the phrase, it means something along the lines of ‘attracts my attention’), it’s the collaboration which intrigues me most about this research. From a July 23, 2015 news item on Azonano (Note: A link has been removed),

An international team led by the ICREA Prof Arben Merkoçi has just developed new sensing platforms based on bacterial cellulose nanopaper. These novel platforms are simple, low cost and easy to produce and present outstanding properties that make them ideal for optical (bio)sensing applications. …

ICN2 [Catalan Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology; Spain] researchers are going a step further in the development of simple, low cost and easy to produce biosensors. In an article published in ACS Nano they recently reported various innovative nanopaper-based optical sensing platforms. To achieve this endeavour the corresponding author ICREA Prof Arben Merkoçi, Group Leader at ICN2 and the first author, Dr Eden Morales-Narváez (from ICN2) and Hamed Golmohammadi (visiting researcher at ICN2), established an international collaboration with the Shahid Chamran University (Iran), the Gorgan University of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources (Iran) and the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic. [emphases mine]

Spain, Iran, and the Czech Republic. That’s an interesting combination of countries.

A July 23, 2015 ICN2 press release, which originated the news item, provides more explanations and detail,

Cellulose is simple, naturally abundant and low cost. However, cellulose fibres ranging at the nanoscale exhibit extraordinary properties such as flexibility, high crystallinity, biodegradability and optical transparency, among others. The nanomaterial can be extracted from plant cellulose pulp or synthetized by non-pathogenic bacteria. Currently, nanocellulose is under active research to develop a myriad of applications including filtration, wound dressing, pollution removal approaches or flexible and transparent electronics, whereas it has been scarcely explored for optical (bio)sensing applications.

The research team led by ICREA Prof Arben Merkoçi seeks to design, fabricate, and test simple, disposable and versatile sensing platforms based on this material. They designed different bacterial cellulose nanopaper based optical sensing platforms. In the article, the authors describe how the material can be tuned to exhibit plasmonic or photoluminescent properties that can be exploited for sensing applications. Specifically, they have prepared two types of plasmonic nanopaper and two types of photoluminescent nanopaper using different optically active nanomaterials.

The researchers took advantage of the optical transparency, porosity, hydrophilicity, and amenability to chemical modification of the material. The bacterial cellulose employed throughout this research was obtained using a bottom-up approach and it is shown that it can be easily turned into useful devices for sensing applications using wax printing or simple punch tools. The scientific team also demonstrates how these novel sensing platforms can be modulated to detect biologically relevant analytes such as cyanide and pathogens among others.

According to the authors, this class of platforms will prove valuable for displaying analytical information in diverse fields such as diagnostics, environmental monitoring and food safety. Moreover, since bacterial cellulose is flexible, lightweight, biocompatible and biodegradable, the proposed composites could be used as wearable optical sensors and could even be integrated into novel theranostic devices. In general, paper-based sensors are known to be simple, portable, disposable, low power-consuming and inexpensive devices that might be exploited in medicine, detection of explosives or hazardous compounds and environmental studies.

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

Nanopaper as an Optical Sensing Platform by Eden Morales-Narváez, Hamed Golmohammadi, Tina Naghdi, Hossein Yousefi, Uliana Kostiv, Daniel Horák, Nahid Pourreza, and Arben Merkoçi.ACS Nano, Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/acsnano.5b03097 Publication Date (Web): July 2, 2015
Copyright © 2015 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Motor proteins have a stiff-legged walk

An April 23, 2015 news item on Nanowerk calls to mind Monty Python and its Ministry of Silly Walks,

The ‘stiff-legged’ walk of a motor protein along a tightrope-like filament has been captured for the first time.

Because cells are divided in many parts that serve different functions some cellular goodies need to be transported from one part of the cell to another for it to function smoothly. There is an entire class of proteins called ‘molecular motors’, such as myosin 5, that specialise in transporting cargo using chemical energy as fuel.

Remarkably, these proteins not only function like nano-scale lorries, they also look like a two-legged creature that takes very small steps. But exactly how Myosin 5 did this was unclear.

For anyone unfamiliar with The Ministry of Silly Walks (from its Wikipedia entry; Note: Links have been removed),

“The Ministry of Silly Walks” is a sketch from the Monty Python comedy troupe’s television show Monty Python’s Flying Circus, season 2, episode 14, which is entitled “Face the Press”.

Here’s an image from the sketch, which perfectly illustrates a stiff-legged walk,

John Cleese as a Civil Servant in the Ministry of Silly Walks. Screenshot from Monty Python's Flying Circus episode, Dinsdale (Alternate episode title: Face the Press). Ministry_of_Silly_Walks.jpg ‎(300 × 237 pixels, file size: 14 KB, MIME type: image/jpeg) [downloaded from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Ministry_of_Silly_Walks.jpg]

John Cleese as a Civil Servant in the Ministry of Silly Walks. Screenshot from Monty Python’s Flying Circus episode, Dinsdale (Alternate episode title: Face the Press). Ministry_of_Silly_Walks.jpg ‎(300 × 237 pixels, file size: 14 KB, MIME type: image/jpeg) [downloaded from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Ministry_of_Silly_Walks.jpg]

As far as I can tell, the use of this image would fall under the notion of ‘fair dealing‘ as it’s called in Canada.

Getting back to the Nanowerk news item, it started life as a University of Oxford Science blog April 23, 2015 posting  by Pete Wilton (Note: A link has been removed),

The motion of myosin 5 has now been recorded by a team led by Oxford University scientists using a new microscopy technique that can ‘see’ tiny steps of tens of nanometres captured at up to 1000 frames per second. The findings are of interest for anyone trying to understand the basis of cellular function but could also help efforts aimed at designing efficient nanomachines.

‘Until now, we believed that the sort of movements or steps these proteins made were random and free-flowing because none of the experiments suggested otherwise,’ said Philipp Kukura of Oxford University’s Department of Chemistry who led the research recently reported in the journal eLife. ‘However, what we have shown is that the movements only appeared random; if you have the capability to watch the motion with sufficient speed and precision, a rigid walking pattern emerges.’

One of the key problems for those trying to capture proteins on a walkabout is that not only are these molecules small – with steps much smaller than the wavelength of light and therefore the resolution of most optical microscopes – but they are also move very quickly.

Philipp describes how the team had to move from the microscope equivalent of an iPhone camera to something more like the high speed cameras used to snap speeding bullets. Even with such precise equipment the team had to tag the ‘feet’ of the protein in order to precisely image its gait: one foot was tagged with a quantum dot, the other with a gold particle just 20 nanometres across. (Confusingly, technically speaking, these ‘feet’ are termed the ‘heads’ of the protein because they bind to the actin filament).

I recommend reading Wilton’s post in its entirety. Meanwhile, here’s a 12 secs. video illustrating the motor protein’s stiff-legged walk,

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

Structural dynamics of myosin 5 during processive motion revealed by interferometric scattering microscopy by Joanna Andrecka, Jaime Ortega Arroyo, Yasuharu Takagi, Gabrielle de Wit, Adam Fineberg, Lachlan MacKinnon, Gavin Young, James R Sellers, & Philipp Kukura. eLife 2015;4:e05413 DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.7554/eLife.05413Published March 6, 2015

This paper is open access.

As for silly walks, there is more than one version of the sketch with John Cleese on YouTube but I was particularly taken with this public homage which took place in Brno (Czech Republic) in Jan. 2013,

Enjoy!

Czech veterinary research institute tracks nanoparticles

When I first saw the Jan. 7, 2014 news item on Azonano, I was expecting to see some cute animal images mixed with the ‘nano’ talk. While there’s no mild amusement to be had, there is plenty of ‘nano’ talk concerning the work being done at the Veterinary Research Institute (Brno,  Czech republic) on characterizing nanoparticles using some new equipment (Note: Links have been removed),

Malvern [which owns the company, NanoSight] reports on how NanoSight’s Nanoparticle Tracking Analysis, NTA, is being applied in the Veterinary Research Institute, Brno, Czech Republic in the research group of Dr. Jaroslav Turanek in the Department of Pharmacology and Immunotherapy).

The central theme of Dr. Jaroslav Turanek’s research group (Department of Pharmacology and Immunotherapy) at the Veterinary Research Institute in Brno is to apply synthetic and bioorganic chemistry. This work is performed in collaboration with King’s College London and the Institute of Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry, Prague, for the design and construction of therapeutic nanoparticles to develop drug delivery systems (anticancer and antiviral drugs) and nanocarriers for construction of recombinant vaccines.

In parallel, the research group of Dr. Miroslav Machala (Department of Chemistry and Toxicology) at Veterinary Research Institute focuses upon environmental nanoparticulate pollutants. Characterization of airborne particles is conducted using electron microscopy, but in vitro tests on cell culture require knowledge of the real structure of nanoparticles in the tissue culture medium (e.g. aggregation). This enables the group to draw the correct conclusions from in vitro toxicological experiments which can be affected by differences in local nanoparticle concentration owing to sedimentation. Detailed particle distribution and kinetics of aggregation in this heterogeneous system is impossible to obtain using electron microscopy and hence Nanoparticle Tracking Analysis, NTA, is the method of choice. It is noted that some metastable aggregates can disaggregate due to high dilution of the sample required for NTA analysis. For this reason, Dynamic Light Scattering, DLS, and NTA are used as suitable complementary methods in the laboratory.

The Jan. 7, 2014 Malvern Instruments press release on biospace.com, which originated the news item, provides a quote from Dr. Jaroslav Turanek’ describing the NTA system,

Explaining their choice of NanoSight, Dr Turanek said “We chose NTA as a convenient and rapid method for characterization of nanoparticles in heterogeneous preparations like liposomes and their complexes with proteins, DNA and polysaccharides. A set of these techniques is used for the complex characterization of the structure of the nanoparticles, the kinetics of their preparation, the dynamics of morphological transformation and, finally, their stability. NTA perfectly fits our needs and has become a standard method in our methodological portfolio. The most advantageous feature of NTA is that it makes it possible to visualize each nanoparticle and then to obtain more detailed size distributions based on individual particle measurements. DLS is used as precise complementary method for the characterization of nanoparticles below 20 nm for proteins and other biopolymers. Combination of these two methods, NTA and DLS, with separation methods (GPC, FFF) and electron microscopy is preferred to get the full insight to structure and dynamics of nanoparticles in our sample systems.”

It took me quite a while to realize that nanoparticles in a sample are not necessarily homogenous, i.e., similar in size, etc. Unconsciously, I had applied my notions of manufacturing where items are made (stamped, poured into moulds, etc.)  to be identical. As far as I’m aware there is no such production process for nanoparticles which makes characterizing them an important task if the purpose is to better understand their properties.

You can find out more about Malvern Instruments here and about NanoSight here.

China’s and NanoH2O’s desalination efforts

An Oct. 21, 2013 news item on Azonano describes a desalination business deal between China and NanoH2O, a company headquartered in California,

NanoH2O, Inc., manufacturer of the most efficient and cost-effective reverse osmosis (RO) membranes for seawater desalination, today announced plans to build a manufacturing facility in Liyang, China, a city in the Yangtze River Delta 250 kilometers west of Shanghai.

The 10,000 square meter facility will be the company’s second fully integrated manufacturing plant, following the first located in Los Angeles, California. The China facility comes at a total investment of $45 million and is expected to be operational by the end of 2014.

China, which represents one-fifth of the world’s population but just six percent of the global fresh water supply, plans to increase its seawater reverse osmosis desalination capacity three-fold by 2015. The overall membrane market in China is estimated to grow more than 20 percent per year over the next 10 years. The Chinese government’s current five-year plan also calls for 70 percent of equipment used in desalination plants to be produced domestically. Establishing a new NanoH2O facility in China will allow the company to take advantage of the growing domestic market for both desalination and wastewater treatment.

A few weeks ago in a Sept. 27, 2013 posting, I mentioned some negotiations and deal making between China and the Czech Republic, which concerned ‘green’ nanotechnology.

The signing of the Letter of Intent between NAFIGATE China (a subsidiary of the Czech company NAFIGATE Corporation JSC) and their Chinese partner Guodian Technology & Environment Group Corporation Limited (a subsidiary of one of the most prominent Chinese energy companies) is a significant milestone in Czech-Chinese cooperation in nanotechnology sector. Since January 2013 both companies have been preparing the foundation of the NANODEC (Nanofiber Development Center) project for the development of final applications for water and air cleaning.[emphasis added here]

The company does provide some details about its technology, reversoe osmosis membranes relying on thin-film nanocomposites (TFN) on the FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) webpage on the NanoH2O website,

 About Thin-Film Nanocomposite (TFN) Technology

What does the term “thin-film nanocomposite” mean?

The term “thin-film nanocomposite” was first used by researchers at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) who found that by encapsulating benign nanomaterial into the thin-film polyamide layer of a traditional thin-film composite membrane, they were able to increase membrane permeability compared to conventional RO membranes. NanoH2O leverages nanotechnology to further change the structure of the thin-film of a conventional RO membrane and enhance membrane performance. Benign nanoparticles are introduced during the synthesis of a traditional polymer film and are fully encapsulated when the nanocomposite RO membrane is formed.

How do nanoparticles increase membrane performance?

NanoH2O’s encapsulation of benign nanoparticles changes the structure of the thin-film surface of a conventional RO membrane, allowing more water to pass through while rejecting unwanted materials such as salt. QuantumFlux membranes are 50-100% more permeable than conventional membranes while still meeting best-in-class salt rejection.

Do nanoparticles pose any potential risks to water quality?

No. NanoH2O’s QuantumFlux membrane elements are completely safe for the treatment of potable water. The Qfx SW 365 ES, Qfx SW 400 ES, Qfx SW 400 SR and Qfx SW 400 R are all NSF Standard 61 certified, which means that they have been independently evaluated by NSF International, the global organization that provides standards development, product certification, auditing, education and risk management for public health and safety. NSF Standard 61 certification attests to the safety and viability of the Qfx SW 365 ES, Qfx SW 400 ES, Qfx SW 400 SR and Qfx SW 400 R membrane elements when used in the production of drinking water.

Does NanoH2O use a nanoparticle coating applied to another manufacturer’s membrane?

No. NanoH2O introduces nanostructured materials into the monomers that form the polymer film manufactured solely at its El Segundo, California facility. The nanoparticles are encapsulated into NanoH2O’s patented and patent-pending thin-film polyamide formulation, which makes up the top layer of the thin-film nanocomposite membrane.

There’s no mention here of exactly what kind of nanoparticles are being used in the company’s Quantum Flux membranes (or as they’re known generically, reverse osmosis membranes) but the company does offer some technical papers here, where there is, hopefully, more detail.

About Thin-Film Nanocomposite (TFN) Technology

What does the term “thin-film nanocomposite” mean?

The term “thin-film nanocomposite” was first used by researchers at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) who found that by encapsulating benign nanomaterial into the thin-film polyamide layer of a traditional thin-film composite membrane, they were able to increase membrane permeability compared to conventional RO membranes. NanoH2O leverages nanotechnology to further change the structure of the thin-film of a conventional RO membrane and enhance membrane performance. Benign nanoparticles are introduced during the synthesis of a traditional polymer film and are fully encapsulated when the nanocomposite RO membrane is formed.

How do nanoparticles increase membrane performance?

NanoH2O’s encapsulation of benign nanoparticles changes the structure of the thin-film surface of a conventional RO membrane, allowing more water to pass through while rejecting unwanted materials such as salt. QuantumFlux membranes are 50-100% more permeable than conventional membranes while still meeting best-in-class salt rejection.

Do nanoparticles pose any potential risks to water quality?

No. NanoH2O’s QuantumFlux membrane elements are completely safe for the treatment of potable water. The Qfx SW 365 ES, Qfx SW 400 ES, Qfx SW 400 SR and Qfx SW 400 R are all NSF Standard 61 certified, which means that they have been independently evaluated by NSF International, the global organization that provides standards development, product certification, auditing, education and risk management for public health and safety. NSF Standard 61 certification attests to the safety and viability of the Qfx SW 365 ES, Qfx SW 400 ES, Qfx SW 400 SR and Qfx SW 400 R membrane elements when used in the production of drinking water.

Does NanoH2O use a nanoparticle coating applied to another manufacturer’s membrane?

No. NanoH2O introduces nanostructured materials into the monomers that form the polymer film manufactured solely at its El Segundo, California facility. The nanoparticles are encapsulated into NanoH2O’s patented and patent-pending thin-film polyamide formulation, which makes up the top layer of the thin-film nanocomposite membrane.

Czech nanotechnology efforts in China

There’s a Sept. 27, 2013 news item about the Czech Republic’s latest technology mission to China on the Nanowerk website,

This week [Sept.  23 – 27, 2013], the representatives of Czech nanotechnology firms, two famous technical universities and CzechInvest took part in a technology mission to China, where they met Chinese counterparts and discussed the further strengthening of cooperation in the field of nanotechnology. This technology mission to China, together with activities of some Czech nanotechnology companies, which have also been extensively supported by the Czech embassy in Beijing in recent months, has brought new opportunities for investment and the further collaboration of highly innovative technologies originated in the Czech Republic.

The Sept. 25, 2013 Czechinvest news release, which originated the news item,  offers more details about the mission,

“The Czech Republic is a world leader in the field of nanotechnology, which has an impact on numerous industrial sectors and places major demands on research. Czech nanotechnology firms are highly respected on the Chinese market,” says Marian Piecha, CEO of CzechInvest.

Representatives of CzechInvest, the Technical University of Liberec, Brno University of Technology and the Czech nanotechnology firms NAFIGATE Corporation, Elmarco, ACT Nami and Noen are taking part in CHINanoForum 2013, which is being held from 24 to 27 September in Jiangsu province. Within the forum’s accompanying programme, CzechInvest and NAFIGATE Corporation conducted a seminar title Nanosolutions for Green Economy – Investment Opportunity in China on 24 September. On 27 September the Czech delegates and their Chinese counterparts will be at the Czech embassy in Beijing to discuss the topic of using nanotechnologies in water treatment, among other things.

“China offers tremendous space for introducing new high-tech products to the market,” says Ladislav Mareš, chairman of the board of directors of NAFIGATE Corporation. “This technology mission therefore has major significance for supporting Czech exports to the Chinese market. Presentation of the potential of Czech nanotechnologies is also a signal for Chinese investors.”

According to the news release, a memorandum of understanding will be signed,

Technological cooperation between the two countries will also be supported by the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between the Technology Agency of the Czech Republic and the Suzhou Industrial Park Administrative Committee. The signing of the memorandum, which will facilitate cooperation between Czech and Chinese firms with a high technological profile, will be attended by representatives of CzechInvest and His Excellency Libor Sečka, the Czech ambassador in China.

Earlier this years,  in June 2013, Nafigate signed a letter of intent with its Chinese partner, Guodian Technology & Environment Group Corporation Limited, regarding the development of a green nanotechnology centre. From a June 21, 2013 news release on PR newswire,

In the last few days, Czech nanotechnology pioneers have been presenting possible ways of utilizing Czech nanotechnology with specific examples taken from the Clean Air Nanosolution and Clean Water Nanosolution projects to representatives of the most significant Chinese companies at the Embassy of the Czech Republic in Beijing. “There is a lot of interest in the new technology because it solves fundamental problems in air and water cleaning. At the same time the Czech Republic is the world leader in the field of nanofibers and has much to offer China, from cooperation in research and development to putting specific innovative approaches into practice. Cooperation in this field could become an important new branch of mutual trade and scientific and technological exchanges and bring qualitative changes in the life of Chinese society,” said H. E. Mr. Libor Secka, Ambassador of the Czech Republic to the People’s Republic of China.

The signing of the Letter of Intent between NAFIGATE China (a subsidiary of the Czech company NAFIGATE Corporation JSC) and their Chinese partner Guodian Technology & Environment Group Corporation Limited (a subsidiary of one of the most prominent Chinese energy companies) is a significant milestone in Czech-Chinese cooperation in nanotechnology sector. Since January 2013 both companies have been preparing the foundation of the NANODEC (Nanofiber Development Center) project for the development of final applications for water and air cleaning.

The establishment of the center will be a major breakthrough with a global impact in the field of nanofiber applications. The aim of this initiative is to build a center of excellence which will utilize the best available worldwide know-how, the technological and infrastructural potential of one of the most significant Chinese companies and the potential of the market for new low carbon and green technologies. The Letter of Intent specifies the steps required to open the center according to the schedule in the last quarter of 2013.

For those interested in the overall nanotechnology scene in the Czech Republic, I found a 2012 article in the New York Times and a paper (2009?)  written for the National Information Centre For European Research (NICER) and located on the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development.

Here’s some of what Jacy Meyer wrote for the New York Times in a May 22, 2012 article,

Industries based on nanotechnology are a rapidly growing niche in the economy of the Czech Republic, which, although small, is widely respected for its technical prowess. In February, the country had its own pavilion at the International Nanotechnology Trade Fair, Nanotech 2012, in Tokyo. Ten Czech companies took part.

One was Advanced Materials-JTJ, which produces photocatalytic coating materials incorporating titanium dioxide nanoparticles, known as FN coatings. The semi-transparent, odorless coatings have the unusual property of purifying the air around them — removing viruses, bacteria, toxins, cigarette smoke and more through a light-activated catalytic process.

Over the course of a year, “one square meter of FN-painted facade will clean and decontaminate over three million cubic meters of air,” or 106 million cubic feet, removing several kilograms of pollution, Mr. Prochazka [Jan Prochazka, Advanced Materials-JTJ’s chief executive] said.

As well as cleaning the air, the coating protects the painted surfaces from mold, fungus and the slow accumulation of dirt deposits that cause erosion and discoloring, he said.

The process, activated by ultraviolet light — that is, sunshine — is both environmentally friendly and cost-effective.

“For many people nano is a question mark, but really, everything is nano, except for gravel, sand and a few other materials,” Mr. Prochazka said in an interview in Prague. “Take a cup of water; you can’t imagine how many nanoparticles are inside.”

The National Information Centre For European Research (NICER) report titled, Czech Experience in the International Nanotechnology Cooperation, by Jitka Kubatova on the OECD website offers an overview of the public funding of R&D and much more,

the total (public + private) expenditure on R&D:

in 2005
42,2 billion CZK(€1,58 billion)
1,41% GDP (gross domestic product)

in 2006
49,9 billion CZK (€1,87 billion)
1,55% GDP

in 2007
54,3 billion CZK, (€2,03 billion)
1,53% GDP (p. 3 of the PDF)