Tag Archives: Finland

A plasmonic nanolaser operating at visible light frequencies using ‘dark lattice’ modes

Finnish scientists have created lasers made of nanoparticles according to a Jan. 3, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily,

Researchers at Aalto University, Finland are the first to develop a plasmonic nanolaser that operates at visible light frequencies and uses so-called dark lattice modes.

The laser works at length scales 1000 times smaller than the thickness of a human hair. The lifetimes of light captured in such small dimensions are so short that the light wave has time to wiggle up and down only a few tens or hundreds of times. The results open new prospects for on-chip coherent light sources, such as lasers, that are extremely small and ultrafast.

The laser operation in this work is based on silver nanoparticles arranged in a periodic array.

A Jan. 3, 2017 Aalto University press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the work in more detail,

 In contrast to conventional lasers, where the feedback of the lasing signal is provided by ordinary mirrors, this nanolaser utilizes radiative coupling between silver nanoparticles. These 100-nanometer-sized particles act as tiny antennas. To produce high intensity laser light, the interparticle distance was matched with the lasing wavelength so that all particles of the array radiate in unison. Organic fluorescent molecules were used to provide the input energy (the gain) that is needed for lasing.

Light from the dark

A major challenge in achieving lasing this way was that light may not exist long enough in such small dimensions to be helpful. The researchers found a smart way around this potential problem: they produced lasing in dark modes.

“A dark mode can be intuitively understood by considering regular antennas: A single antenna, when driven by a current, radiates strongly, whereas two antennas — if driven by opposite currents and positioned very close to each other — radiate very little,” explains Academy Professor Päivi Törmä.

“A dark mode in a nanoparticle array induces similar opposite-phase currents in each nanoparticle, but now with visible light frequencies”, she continues.

“Dark modes are attractive for applications where low power consumption is needed. But without any tricks, dark mode lasing would be quite useless because the light is essentially trapped at the nanoparticle array and cannot leave”, adds staff scientist Tommi Hakala.

“But by utilizing the small size of the array, we found an escape route for the light. Towards the edges of the array, the nanoparticles start to behave more and more like regular antennas that radiate to the outer world”, tells Ph.D. student Heikki Rekola.

The research team used the nanofabrication facilities and cleanrooms of the national OtaNano research infrastructure.

The researchers have produced a video elucidating their research,

A revelatory soundtrack by Kevin MacLeod has been added to this video.

Finally, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Lasing in dark and bright modes of a finite-sized plasmonic lattice by T. K. Hakala, H. T. Rekola, A. I. Väkeväinen, J.-P. Martikainen, M. Nečada, A. J. Moilanen & P. Törmä. Nature Communications  8, Article number: 13687 doi:10.1038/ncomms13687 Published 03 January 2017

This is an open access paper.

Luminous electronic tiles (lumentile)

A Dec. 19, 2016 news item on Nanowerk introduces a ceramic tile that can be given a different look at the touch of a fingertip,

Using pioneering photonics technology, The ‘Luminous Electronic Tile’, or LUMENTILE, project mixes the simplicity of a plain ceramic tile with the complexity of today’s sophisticated touch screen technology, creating a light source and unparalleled interaction. All it takes is one tap to change the colour, look or mood of any room in your house.

This is the first time anyone has tried to embed electronics into ceramics or glass for a large-scale application. With the ability to play videos or display images, the tiles allow the user to turn their walls into a large ‘cinema’ screen, where each unit acts as a set of pixels of the overall display.

An undated Horizon 2020 webpage describes the ‘digital wallpaper’ in more detail,

Scientists from Italy have created ‘digital wallpaper’, allowing for a constant change in design and aesthetic controlled via a smartphone, tablet or computer.

Each Luminous Electronic Tile – or Lumentile – acts as a touch screen which can change colour, pattern or light intensity, play videos or display images.

If numerous tiles are arranged together, they can create a ‘cinema’ screen with each tile acting as a set of pixels for the overall display.

The combination of ceramic, glass and electronics could allow the user to have interchangeable control of the look and design of their surroundings by tapping the tile.

Each tile can be arranged to completely or partially cover walls of a room, floor or ceiling.

However, they can also be transferred to the exterior of buildings, as either flat or curved tiles to fit around columns or uneven surfaces.

Project co-ordinator Professor Guido Giuliani, said: “It may sound like the stuff of James Bond but external tiles would create a ‘chameleonic skin’ or instant camouflage.

“Although we are a long way off this yet, this would allow a car or building to blend completely into its surroundings, and hence ‘disappear’.”

Although these tiles cannot be purchased yet, they hope to be available to users in two years, with mass production by the end of 2020.

Lumentile received a grant of more than €2.4m from the Horizon 2020 programme via the Photonics Public Private Partnership. Created in Italy by the Universita Degli Studi Di Pavia, the Lumentile project also has a number of European partners from Finland, Switzerland and Spain.

A combination of ceramic, glass and organic electronics, the luminous tile includes structural materials, solid-state light sources and electronic chips and can be controlled with a central computer, a smart phone or tablet. [downloaded from http://www.nanowerk.com/nanotechnology-news/newsid=45417.php]

You can find a bit more information on the Lumentile project website.

Sustainable Nanotechnologies (SUN) project draws to a close in March 2017

Two Oct. 31, 2016 news item on Nanowerk signal the impending sunset date for the European Union’s Sustainable Nanotechnologies (SUN) project. The first Oct. 31, 2016 news item on Nanowerk describes the projects latest achievements,

The results from the 3rd SUN annual meeting showed great advancement of the project. The meeting was held in Edinburgh, Scotland, UK on 4-5 October 2016 where the project partners presented the results obtained during the second reporting period of the project.

SUN is a three and a half year EU project, running from 2013 to 2017, with a budget of about €14 million. Its main goal is to evaluate the risks along the supply chain of engineered nanomaterials and incorporate the results into tools and guidelines for sustainable manufacturing.

The ultimate goal of the SUN Project is the development of an online software Decision Support System – SUNDS – aimed at estimating and managing occupational, consumer, environmental and public health risks from nanomaterials in real industrial products along their lifecycles. The SUNDS beta prototype has been released last October, 2015, and since then the main focus has been on refining the methodologies and testing them on selected case studies i.e. nano-copper oxide based wood preserving paint and nano- sized colourants for plastic car part: organic pigment and carbon black. Obtained results and open issues were discussed during the third annual meeting in order collect feedbacks from the consortium that will inform, in the next months, the implementation of the final version of the SUNDS software system, due by March 2017.

An Oct. 27, 2016 SUN project press release, which originated the news item, adds more information,

Significant interest has been payed towards the results obtained in WP2 (Lifecycle Thinking) which main objectives are to assess the environmental impacts arising from each life cycle stage of the SUN case studies (i.e. Nano-WC-Cobalt (Tungsten Carbide-cobalt) sintered ceramics, Nanocopper wood preservatives, Carbon Nano Tube (CNT) in plastics, Silicon Dioxide (SiO2) as food additive, Nano-Titanium Dioxide (TiO2) air filter system, Organic pigment in plastics and Nanosilver (Ag) in textiles), and compare them to conventional products with similar uses and functionality, in order to develop and validate criteria and guiding principles for green nano-manufacturing. Specifically, the consortium partner COLOROBBIA CONSULTING S.r.l. expressed its willingness to exploit the results obtained from the life cycle assessment analysis related to nanoTiO2 in their industrial applications.

On 6th October [2016], the discussions about the SUNDS advancement continued during a Stakeholder Workshop, where representatives from industry, regulatory and insurance sectors shared their feedback on the use of the decision support system. The recommendations collected during the workshop will be used for the further refinement and implemented in the final version of the software which will be released by March 2017.

The second Oct. 31, 2016 news item on Nanowerk led me to this Oct. 27, 2016 SUN project press release about the activities in the upcoming final months,

The project has designed its final events to serve as an effective platform to communicate the main results achieved in its course within the Nanosafety community and bridge them to a wider audience addressing the emerging risks of Key Enabling Technologies (KETs).

The series of events include the New Tools and Approaches for Nanomaterial Safety Assessment: A joint conference organized by NANOSOLUTIONS, SUN, NanoMILE, GUIDEnano and eNanoMapper to be held on 7 – 9 February 2017 in Malaga, Spain, the SUN-CaLIBRAte Stakeholders workshop to be held on 28 February – 1 March 2017 in Venice, Italy and the SRA Policy Forum: Risk Governance for Key Enabling Technologies to be held on 1- 3 March in Venice, Italy.

Jointly organized by the Society for Risk Analysis (SRA) and the SUN Project, the SRA Policy Forum will address current efforts put towards refining the risk governance of emerging technologies through the integration of traditional risk analytic tools alongside considerations of social and economic concerns. The parallel sessions will be organized in 4 tracks:  Risk analysis of engineered nanomaterials along product lifecycle, Risks and benefits of emerging technologies used in medical applications, Challenges of governing SynBio and Biotech, and Methods and tools for risk governance.

The SRA Policy Forum has announced its speakers and preliminary Programme. Confirmed speakers include:

  • Keld Alstrup Jensen (National Research Centre for the Working Environment, Denmark)
  • Elke Anklam (European Commission, Belgium)
  • Adam Arkin (University of California, Berkeley, USA)
  • Phil Demokritou (Harvard University, USA)
  • Gerard Escher (École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne, Switzerland)
  • Lisa Friedersdor (National Nanotechnology Initiative, USA)
  • James Lambert (President, Society for Risk Analysis, USA)
  • Andre Nel (The University of California, Los Angeles, USA)
  • Bernd Nowack (EMPA, Switzerland)
  • Ortwin Renn (University of Stuttgart, Germany)
  • Vicki Stone (Heriot-Watt University, UK)
  • Theo Vermeire (National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM), Netherlands)
  • Tom van Teunenbroek (Ministry of Infrastructure and Environment, The Netherlands)
  • Wendel Wohlleben (BASF, Germany)

The New Tools and Approaches for Nanomaterial Safety Assessment (NMSA) conference aims at presenting the main results achieved in the course of the organizing projects fostering a discussion about their impact in the nanosafety field and possibilities for future research programmes.  The conference welcomes consortium partners, as well as representatives from other EU projects, industry, government, civil society and media. Accordingly, the conference topics include: Hazard assessment along the life cycle of nano-enabled products, Exposure assessment along the life cycle of nano-enabled products, Risk assessment & management, Systems biology approaches in nanosafety, Categorization & grouping of nanomaterials, Nanosafety infrastructure, Safe by design. The NMSA conference key note speakers include:

  • Harri Alenius (University of Helsinki, Finland,)
  • Antonio Marcomini (Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, Italy)
  • Wendel Wohlleben (BASF, Germany)
  • Danail Hristozov (Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, Italy)
  • Eva Valsami-Jones (University of Birmingham, UK)
  • Socorro Vázquez-Campos (LEITAT Technolоgical Center, Spain)
  • Barry Hardy (Douglas Connect GmbH, Switzerland)
  • Egon Willighagen (Maastricht University, Netherlands)
  • Nina Jeliazkova (IDEAconsult Ltd., Bulgaria)
  • Haralambos Sarimveis (The National Technical University of Athens, Greece)

During the SUN-caLIBRAte Stakeholder workshop the final version of the SUN user-friendly, software-based Decision Support System (SUNDS) for managing the environmental, economic and social impacts of nanotechnologies will be presented and discussed with its end users: industries, regulators and insurance sector representatives. The results from the discussion will be used as a foundation of the development of the caLIBRAte’s Risk Governance framework for assessment and management of human and environmental risks of MN and MN-enabled products.

The SRA Policy Forum: Risk Governance for Key Enabling Technologies and the New Tools and Approaches for Nanomaterial Safety Assessment conference are now open for registration. Abstracts for the SRA Policy Forum can be submitted till 15th November 2016.
For further information go to:

There you have it.

I hear the proteins singing

Points to anyone who recognized the paraphrasing of the title for the well-loved, Canadian movie, “I heard the mermaids singing.” In this case, it’s all about protein folding and data sonification (from an Oct. 20, 2016 news item on phys.org),

Transforming data about the structure of proteins into melodies gives scientists a completely new way of analyzing the molecules that could reveal new insights into how they work – by listening to them. A new study published in the journal Heliyon shows how musical sounds can help scientists analyze data using their ears instead of their eyes.

The researchers, from the University of Tampere in Finland, Eastern Washington University in the US and the Francis Crick Institute in the UK, believe their technique could help scientists identify anomalies in proteins more easily.

An Oct. 20, 2016 Elsevier Publishing press release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

“We are confident that people will eventually listen to data and draw important information from the experiences,” commented Dr. Jonathan Middleton, a composer and music scholar who is based at Eastern Washington University and in residence at the University of Tampere. “The ears might detect more than the eyes, and if the ears are doing some of the work, then the eyes will be free to look at other things.”

Proteins are molecules found in living things that have many different functions. Scientists usually study them visually and using data; with modern microscopy it is possible to directly see the structure of some proteins.

Using a technique called sonification, the researchers can now transform data about proteins into musical sounds, or melodies. They wanted to use this approach to ask three related questions: what can protein data sound like? Are there analytical benefits? And can we hear particular elements or anomalies in the data?

They found that a large proportion of people can recognize links between the melodies and more traditional visuals like models, graphs and tables; it seems hearing these visuals is easier than they expected. The melodies are also pleasant to listen to, encouraging scientists to listen to them more than once and therefore repeatedly analyze the proteins.

The sonifications are created using a combination of Dr. Middleton’s composing skills and algorithms, so that others can use a similar process with their own proteins. The multidisciplinary approach – combining bioinformatics and music informatics – provides a completely new perspective on a complex problem in biology.

“Protein fold assignment is a notoriously tricky area of research in molecular biology,” said Dr. Robert Bywater from the Francis Crick Institute. “One not only needs to identify the fold type but to look for clues as to its many functions. It is not a simple matter to unravel these overlapping messages. Music is seen as an aid towards achieving this unraveling.”

The researchers say their molecular melodies can be used almost immediately in teaching protein science, and after some practice, scientists will be able to use them to discriminate between different protein structures and spot irregularities like mutations.

Proteins are the first stop, but our knowledge of other molecules could also benefit from sonification; one day we may be able to listen to our genomes, and perhaps use this to understand the role of junk DNA [emphasis mine].

About 97% of our DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) has been known for some decades as ‘junk DNA’. In roughly 2012, that was notion was challenged as Stephen S. Hall wrote in an Oct. 1, 2012 article (Hidden Treasures in Junk DNA; What was once known as junk DNA turns out to hold hidden treasures, says computational biologist Ewan Birney) for Scientific American.

Getting back to  2016, here’s a link to and a citation for ‘protein singing’,

Melody discrimination and protein fold classification by  Robert P. Bywater, Jonathan N. Middleton. Heliyon 20 Oct 2016, Volume 2, Issue 10 DOI: 10.1016/j.heliyon.2016.e0017

This paper is open access.

Here’s what the proteins sound like,

Supplementary Audio 3 for file for Supplementary Figure 2 1r75 OHEL sonification full score. [downloaded from the previously cited Heliyon paper]

Joanna Klein has written an Oct. 21, 2016 article for the New York Times providing a slightly different take on this research (Note: Links have been removed),

“It’s used for the concert hall. It’s used for sports. It’s used for worship. Why can’t we use it for our data?” said Jonathan Middleton, the composer at Eastern Washington University and the University of Tampere in Finland who worked with Dr. Bywater.

Proteins have been around for billions of years, but humans still haven’t come up with a good way to visualize them. Right now scientists can shoot a laser at a crystallized protein (which can distort its shape), measure the patterns it spits out and simulate what that protein looks like. These depictions are difficult to sift through and hard to remember.

“There’s no simple equation like e=mc2,” said Dr. Bywater. “You have to do a lot of spade work to predict a protein structure.”

Dr. Bywater had been interested in assigning sounds to proteins since the 1990s. After hearing a song Dr. Middleton had composed called “Redwood Symphony,” which opens with sounds derived from the tree’s DNA, he asked for his help.

Using a process called sonification (which is the same thing used to assign different ringtones to texts, emails or calls on your cellphone) the team took three proteins and turned their folding shapes — a coil, a turn and a strand — into musical melodies. Each shape was represented by a bunch of numbers, and those numbers were converted into a musical code. A combination of musical sounds represented each shape, resulting in a song of simple patterns that changed with the folds of the protein. Later they played those songs to a group of 38 people together with visuals of the proteins, and asked them to identify similarities and differences between them. The two were surprised that people didn’t really need the visuals to detect changes in the proteins.

Plus, I have more about data sonification in a Feb. 7, 2014 posting regarding a duet based on data from Voyager 1 & 2 spacecraft.

Finally, I hope my next Steep project will include  sonification of data on gold nanoparticles. I will keep you posted on any developments.

Phenomen: a future and emerging information technology project

A Sept. 19, 2016 news item on Nanowerk describes a new research project incorporating photonics, phononics, and radio frequency signal processing,

HENOMEN is a ground breaking project designed to harness the potential of combined phononics, photonics and radio-frequency (RF) electronic signals to lay the foundations of a new information technology. This new Project, funded though the highly competitive H2020 [the European Union’s Horizon 2020 science funding programme] FET [Future and Emerging Technologies]-Open call, joins the efforts of three leading research institutes, three internationally recognised universities and a high-tech SME. The Consortium members kick-offed the project with a meeting on Friday September 16, 2016, at the Catalan Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology (ICN2), coordinated by ICREA Research Prof Dr Clivia M. Sotomayor-Torres, of the ICN2’ Phononic and Photonic Nanostructures (P2N) Group.

A Sept. 16, 2016 ICN2 press release, which originated the news item, provides more detail,

Most information is currently transported by electrical charge (electrons) and by light (photons). Phonons are the quanta of lattice vibrations with frequencies covering a wide range up to tens of THz and provide coupling to the surrounding environment. In PHENOMEN the core of the research will be focused on phonon-based signal processing to enable on-chip synchronisation and transfer information carried between optical channels by phonons.

This ambitious prospect could serve as a future scalable platform for, e.g., hybrid information processing with phonons. To achieve it, PHENOMEN proposes to build the first practical optically-driven phonon sources and detectors including the engineering of phonon lasers to deliver coherent phonons to the rest of the chip pumped by a continuous wave optical source. It brings together interdisciplinary scientific and technology oriented partners in an early-stage research towards the development of a radically new technology.

The experimental implementation of phonons as information carriers in a chip is completely novel and of a clear foundational character. It deals with interaction and manipulation of fundamental particles and their intrinsic dual wave-particle character. Thus, it can only be possible with the participation of an interdisciplinary consortium which will create knowledge in a synergetic fashion and add value in the form of new theoretical tools,  develop novel methods to manipulate coherent phonons with light and build all-optical phononic circuits enabled by optomechanics.

The H2020 FET-Open call “Novel ideas for radically new technologies” aims to support the early stages of joint science and technology research for radically new future technological possibilities. The call is entirely non-prescriptive with regards to the nature or purpose of the technologies that are envisaged and thus targets mainly the unexpected. PHENOMEN is one of the 13 funded Research & Innovation Actions and went through a selection process with a success rate (1.4%) ten times smaller than that for an ERC grant. The retained proposals are expected to foster international collaboration in a multitude of disciplines such as robotics, nanotechnology, neuroscience, information science, biology, artificial intelligence or chemistry.

The Consortium

The PHENOMEN Consortium is made up by:

  • 3 leading research institutes:
  • 3 universities with an internationally recognised track-record in their respective areas of expertise:
  • 1 industrial partner:

Move objects by playing a melody

At this point, moving objects by playing a melody is a laboratory experiment but who knows, perhaps one day you’ll be able to sing your front door open. A Sept. 9, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily announces the research on acoustic waves,

Researchers of Aalto University have made a breakthrough in controlling the motion of multiple objects on a vibrating plate with a single acoustic source. By playing carefully constructed melodies, the scientists can simultaneously and independently move multiple objects on the plate towards desired targets. This has enabled scientists, for instance, writing words consisting of separate letters with loose metal pieces on the plate by playing a melody.

A Sept. 9, 2016 Aalto University press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the research in more detail,

Already in 1878, the first studies of sand moving on a vibrating plate were done by Ernst Chladni, known as the father of acoustics. Chladni discovered that when a plate is vibrating at a frequency, objects move towards a few positions, called the nodal lines, specific to that frequency. Since then, the prevailing view has been that the particle motion is random on the plate before they reached the nodal line. “We have shown that the motion is also predictable away from the nodal lines. Now that the object does not have to be at a nodal line, we have much more freedom in controlling its motion and have achieved independent control of up to six objects simultaneously using just one single actuator. We are very excited about the results, because this probably is a new world record of how many independent motions can be controlled by a single acoustic actuator,” says Professor Quan Zhou.

The objects to be controlled have been placed on top of a manipulation plate, and imaged by a tracking camera. Based on the detected positions, the computer goes through a list of music notes to find a note that is most likely to move the objects towards the desired directions. After playing the note, the new positions of the objects are detected, and the control cycle is restarted. This cycle is repeated until the objects have reached their desired target locations. The notes played during the control cycles form a sequence, a bit like music.

The new method has been applied to manipulate a wide range of miniature objects including electronic components, water droplets, plant seeds, candy balls and metal parts. “Some of the practical applications we foresee include conveying and sorting microelectronic chips, delivering drug-loaded particles for pharmaceutical applications or handling small liquid volumes for lab on chips,” says Zhou. “Also, the basic idea should be transferrable to other kinds of systems with vibration phenomena. For example, it should be possible to use waves and ripples to control floating objects in a pond using our technique.”

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

Controlling the motion of multiple objects on a Chladni plate by Quan Zhou, Veikko Sariola, Kourosh Latifi, Ville Liimatainen. Nature Communications 7, Article number: 12764 doi:10.1038/ncomms12764 Published 09 September 2016

This article is open access.

Could your photo be a solar cell?

Scientists at Aalto University (Finland) have found a way to print photographs that produce energy (like a solar cell does) according to a July 25, 2016 news item on Nanowerk,

Solar cells have been manufactured already for a long from inexpensive materials with different printing techniques. Especially organic solar cells and dye-sensitized solar cells are suitable for printing.

“We wanted to take the idea of printed solar cells even further, and see if their materials could be inkjet-printed as pictures and text like traditional printing inks,” tells University Lecturer Janne Halme.

A semi-transparent dye-sensitized solar cell with inkjet-printed photovoltaic portraits of the Aalto researchers (Ghufran Hashmi, Merve Özkan, Janne Halme) and a QR code that links to the original research paper. Courtesy: Aalto University

A semi-transparent dye-sensitized solar cell with inkjet-printed photovoltaic portraits of the Aalto researchers (Ghufran Hashmi, Merve Özkan, Janne Halme) and a QR code that links to the original research paper. Courtesy: Aalto University

A July 26, 2016 Aalto University press release, which originated the news item, describes the innovation in more detail,

When light is absorbed in an ordinary ink, it generates heat. A photovoltaic ink, however, coverts part of that energy to electricity. The darker the color, the more electricity is produced, because the human eye is most sensitive to that part of the solar radiation spectrum which has highest energy density. The most efficient solar cell is therefore pitch-black.

The idea of a colorful, patterned solar cell is to combine also other properties that take advantage of light on the same surface, such as visual information and graphics.

– For example, installed on a sufficiently low-power electrical device, this kind of solar cell could be part of its visual design, and at the same time produce energy for its needs, ponders Halme.

With inkjet printing, the photovoltaic dye could be printed to a shape determined by a selected image file, and the darkness and transparency of the different parts of the image could be adjusted accurately.

– The inkjet-dyed solar cells were as efficient and durable as the corresponding solar cells prepared in a traditional way. They endured more than one thousand hours of continuous light and heat stress without any signs of performance degradation, says Postdoctoral Researcher Ghufran Hashmi.

The dye and electrolyte that turned out to be best were obtained from the research group in the Swiss École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, where Dr. Hashmi worked as a visiting researcher.

– The most challenging thing was to find suitable solvent for the dye and the right jetting parameters that gave precise and uniform print quality, tells Doctoral Candidate Merve Özkan.

This puts solar cells (pun alert) in a whole new light.

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

Dye-sensitized solar cells with inkjet-printed dyes by Syed Ghufran Hashmi, Merve Özkan, Janne Halme, Shaik Mohammed Zakeeruddin, Jouni Paltakari, Michael Grätzel, and Peter D. Lund. Energy Environ. Sci., 2016,9, 2453-2462 DOI: 10.1039/C6EE00826G First published online 09 Jun 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.

Technology, athletics, and the ‘new’ human

There is a tension between Olympic athletes and Paralympic athletes as it is felt by some able-bodied athletes that paralympic athletes may have an advantage due to their prosthetics. Roger Pielke Jr. has written a fascinating account of the tensions as a means of asking what it all means. From Pielke Jr.’s Aug. 3, 2016 post on the Guardian Science blogs (Note: Links have been removed),

Athletes are humans too, and they sometimes look for a performance improvement through technological enhancements. In my forthcoming book, The Edge: The War Against Cheating and Corruption in the Cutthroat World of Elite Sports, I discuss a range of technological augmentations to both people and to sports, and the challenges that they pose for rule making. In humans, such improvements can be the result of surgery to reshape (like laser eye surgery) or strengthen (such as replacing a ligament with a tendon) the body to aid performance, or to add biological or non-biological parts that the individual wasn’t born with.

One well-known case of technological augmentation involved the South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius, who ran in the 2012 Olympic Games on prosthetic “blades” below his knees (during happier days for the athlete who is currently jailed in South Africa for the killing of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp). Years before the London Games Pistorius began to have success on the track running against able-bodied athletes. As a consequence of this success and Pistorius’s interest in competing at the Olympic games, the International Association of Athletics Federations (or IAAF, which oversees elite track and field competitions) introduced a rule in 2007, focused specifically on Pistorius, prohibiting the “use of any technical device that incorporates springs, wheels, or any other element that provides the user with an advantage over another athlete not using such a device.” Under this rule, Pistorius was determined by the IAAF to be ineligible to compete against able-bodied athletes.

Pistorius appealed the decision to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. The appeal hinged on answering a metaphysical question—how fast would Pistorius have run had he been born with functioning legs below the knee? In other words, did the blades give him an advantage over other athletes that the hypothetical, able-bodied Oscar Pistorius would not have had? Because there never was an able-bodied Pistorius, the CAS looked to scientists to answer the question.

CAS concluded that the IAAF was in fact fixing the rules to prevent Pistorius from competing and that “at least some IAAF officials had determined that they did not want Mr. Pistorius to be acknowledged as eligible to compete in international IAAF-sanctioned events, regardless of the results that properly conducted scientific studies might demonstrate.” CAS determined that it was the responsibility of the IAAF to show “on the balance of probabilities” that Pistorius gained an advantage by running on his blades. CAS concluded that the research commissioned by the IAAF did not show conclusively such an advantage.

As a result, CAS ruled that Pistorius was able to compete in the London Games, where he reached the semifinals of the 400 meters. CAS concluded that resolving such disputes “must be viewed as just one of the challenges of 21st Century life.”

The story does not end with Oscar Pistorius as Pielke, Jr. notes. There has been another challenge, this time by Markus Rehm, a German long-jumper who leaps off a prosthetic leg. Interestingly, the rules have changed since Oscar Pistorius won his case (Note: Links have been removed),

In the Pistorius case, under the rules for inclusion in the Olympic games the burden of proof had been on the IAAF, not the athlete, to demonstrate the presence of an advantage provided by technology.

This precedent was overturned in 2015, when the IAAF quietly introduced a new rule that in such cases reverses the burden of proof. The switch placed the burden of proof on the athlete instead of the governing body. The new rule—which we might call the Rehm Rule, given its timing—states that an athlete with a prosthetic limb (specifically, any “mechanical aid”) cannot participate in IAAF events “unless the athlete can establish on the balance of probabilities that the use of an aid would not provide him with an overall competitive advantage over an athlete not using such aid.” This new rule effectively slammed the door to participation by Paralympians with prosthetics from participating in Olympic Games.

Even if an athlete might have the resources to enlist researchers to carefully study his or her performance, the IAAF requires the athlete to do something that is very difficult, and often altogether impossible—to prove a negative.

If you have the time, I encourage you to read Pielke Jr.’s piece in its entirety as he notes the secrecy with which the Rehm rule was implemented and the implications for the future. Here’s one last excerpt (Note: A link has been removed),

We may be seeing only the beginning of debates over technological augmentation and sport. Silvia Camporesi, an ethicist at King’s College London, observed: “It is plausible to think that in 50 years, or maybe less, the ‘natural’ able-bodied athletes will just appear anachronistic.” She continues: “As our concept of what is ‘natural’ depends on what we are used to, and evolves with our society and culture, so does our concept of ‘purity’ of sport.”

I have written many times about human augmentation and the possibility that what is now viewed as a ‘normal’ body may one day be viewed as subpar or inferior is not all that farfetched. David Epstein’s 2014 TED talk “Are athletes really getting faster, better, stronger?” points out that in addition to sports technology innovations athletes’ bodies have changed considerably since the beginning of the 20th century. He doesn’t discuss body augmentation but it seems increasingly likely not just for athletes but for everyone.

As for athletes and augmentation, Epstein has an Aug. 7, 2016 Scientific American piece published on Salon.com in time for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro,

I knew Eero Mäntyranta had magic blood, but I hadn’t expected to see it in his face. I had tracked him down above the Arctic Circle in Finland where he was — what else? — a reindeer farmer.

He was all red. Not just the crimson sweater with knitted reindeer crossing his belly, but his actual skin. It was cardinal dappled with violet, his nose a bulbous purple plum. In the pictures I’d seen of him in Sports Illustrated in the 1960s — when he’d won three Olympic gold medals in cross-country skiing — he was still white. But now, as an older man, his special blood had turned him red.

Mäntyranta had about 50 percent more red blood cells than a normal man. If Armstrong [Lance Armstrong, cyclist] had as many red blood cells as Mäntyranta, cycling rules would have barred him from even starting a race, unless he could prove it was a natural condition.

During his career, Mäntyranta was accused of doping after his high red blood cell count was discovered. Two decades after he retired, Finnish scientists found his family’s mutation. …

Epstein also covers the Pistorius story, albeit with more detail about the science and controversy of determining whether someone with prosthetics may have an advantage over an able-bodied athlete. Scientists don’t agree about whether or not there is an advantage.

I have many other posts on the topic of augmentation. You can find them under the Human Enhancement category and you can also try the tag, machine/flesh.

Measuring the van der Waals forces between individual atoms for the first time

A May 13, 2016 news item on Nanowerk heralds the first time measuring the van der Waals forces between individual atoms,

Physicists at the Swiss Nanoscience Institute and the University of Basel have succeeded in measuring the very weak van der Waals forces between individual atoms for the first time. To do this, they fixed individual noble gas atoms within a molecular network and determined the interactions with a single xenon atom that they had positioned at the tip of an atomic force microscope. As expected, the forces varied according to the distance between the two atoms; but, in some cases, the forces were several times larger than theoretically calculated.

A May 13, 2016 University of Basel press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides an explanation of van der Waals forces (the most comprehensive I’ve seen) and technical details about how the research was conducted,

Van der Waals forces act between non-polar atoms and molecules. Although they are very weak in comparison to chemical bonds, they are hugely significant in nature. They play an important role in all processes relating to cohesion, adhesion, friction or condensation and are, for example, essential for a gecko’s climbing skills.

Van der Waals interactions arise due to a temporary redistribution of electrons in the atoms and molecules. This results in the occasional formation of dipoles, which in turn induce a redistribution of electrons in closely neighboring molecules. Due to the formation of dipoles, the two molecules experience a mutual attraction, which is referred to as a van der Waals interaction. This only exists temporarily but is repeatedly re-formed. The individual forces are the weakest binding forces that exist in nature, but they add up to reach magnitudes that we can perceive very clearly on the macroscopic scale – as in the example of the gecko.

Fixed within the nano-beaker

To measure the van der Waals forces, scientists in Basel used a low-temperature atomic force microscope with a single xenon atom on the tip. They then fixed the individual argon, krypton and xenon atoms in a molecular network. This network, which is self-organizing under certain experimental conditions, contains so-called nano-beakers of copper atoms in which the noble gas atoms are held in place like a bird egg. Only with this experimental set-up is it possible to measure the tiny forces between microscope tip and noble gas atom, as a pure metal surface would allow the noble gas atoms to slide around.

Compared with theory

The researchers compared the measured forces with calculated values and displayed them graphically. As expected from the theoretical calculations, the measured forces fell dramatically as the distance between the atoms increased. While there was good agreement between measured and calculated curve shapes for all of the noble gases analyzed, the absolute measured forces were larger than had been expected from calculations according to the standard model. Above all for xenon, the measured forces were larger than the calculated values by a factor of up to two.

The scientists are working on the assumption that, even in the noble gases, charge transfer occurs and therefore weak covalent bonds are occasionally formed, which would explain the higher values.

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

Van der Waals interactions and the limits of isolated atom models at interfaces by Shigeki Kawai, Adam S. Foster, Torbjörn Björkman, Sylwia Nowakowska, Jonas Björk, Filippo Federici Canova, Lutz H. Gade, Thomas A. Jung, & Ernst Meyer. Nature Communications 7, Article number: 11559  doi:10.1038/ncomms11559 Published 13 May 2016

This is an open access paper.

Graphene Flagship high points

The European Union’s Graphene Flagship project has provided a series of highlights in place of an overview for the project’s ramp-up phase (in 2013 the Graphene Flagship was announced as one of two winners of a science competition, the other winner was the Human Brain Project, with two prizes of 1B Euros for each project). Here are the highlights from the April 19, 2016 Graphene Flagship press release,

Graphene and Neurons – the Best of Friends

Flagship researchers have shown that it is possible to interface untreated graphene with neuron cells whilst maintaining the integrity of these vital cells [1]. This result is a significant first step towards using graphene to produce better deep brain implants which can both harness and control the brain.

Graphene and Neurons

This paper emerged from the Graphene Flagship Work Package Health and Environment. Prof. Prato, the WP leader from the University of Trieste in Italy, commented that “We are currently involved in frontline research in graphene technology towards biomedical applications, exploring the interactions between graphene nano- and micro-sheets with the sophisticated signalling machinery of nerve cells. Our work is a first step in that direction.”

[1] Fabbro A., et al., Graphene-Based Interfaces do not Alter Target Nerve Cells. ACS Nano, 10 (1), 615 (2016).

Pressure Sensing with Graphene: Quite a Squeeze

The Graphene Flagship developed a small, robust, highly efficient squeeze film pressure sensor [2]. Pressure sensors are present in most mobile handsets and by replacing current sensor membranes with a graphene membrane they allow the sensor to decrease in size and significantly increase its responsiveness and lifetime.

Discussing this work which emerged from the Graphene Flagship Work Package Sensors is the paper’s lead author, Robin Dolleman from the Technical University of Delft in The Netherlands “After spending a year modelling various systems the idea of the squeeze-film pressure sensor was formed. Funding from the Graphene Flagship provided the opportunity to perform the experiments and we obtained very good results. We built a squeeze-film pressure sensor from 31 layers of graphene, which showed a 45 times higher response than silicon based devices, while reducing the area of the device by a factor of 25. Currently, our work is focused on obtaining similar results on monolayer graphene.”


[2] Dolleman R. J. et al., Graphene Squeeze-Film Pressure Sensors. Nano Lett., 16, 568 (2016)

Frictionless Graphene

Image caption: A graphene nanoribbon was anchored at the tip of a atomic force microscope and dragged over a gold surface. The observed friction force was extremely low.

Image caption: A graphene nanoribbon was anchored at the tip of a atomic force microscope and dragged over a gold surface. The observed friction force was extremely low.

Research done within the Graphene Flagship, has observed the onset of superlubricity in graphene nanoribbons sliding on a surface, unravelling the role played by ribbon size and elasticity [3]. This important finding opens up the development potential of nanographene frictionless coatings. This research lead by the Graphene Flagship Work Package Nanocomposites also involved researchers from Work Package Materials and Work Package Health and the Environment, a shining example of the inter-disciplinary, cross-collaborative approach to research undertaken within the Graphene Flagship. Discussing this further is the Work Package Nanocomposites Leader, Dr Vincenzo Palermo from CNR National Research Council, Italy “Strengthening the collaboration and interactions with other Flagship Work Packages created added value through a strong exchange of materials, samples and information”.

[3] Kawai S., et al., Superlubricity of graphene nanoribbons on gold surfaces. Science. 351, 6276, 957 (2016) 

​Graphene Paddles Forward

Work undertaken within the Graphene Flagship saw Spanish automotive interiors specialist, and Flagship partner, Grupo Antolin SA work in collaboration with Roman Kayaks to develop an innovative kayak that incorporates graphene into its thermoset polymeric matrices. The use of graphene and related materials results in a significant increase in both impact strength and stiffness, improving the resistance to breakage in critical areas of the boat. Pushing the graphene canoe well beyond the prototype demonstration bubble, Roman Kayaks chose to use the K-1 kayak in the Canoe Marathon World Championships held in September in Gyor, Hungary where the Graphene Canoe was really put through its paces.

Talking further about this collaboration from the Graphene Flagship Work Package Production is the WP leader, Dr Ken Teo from Aixtron Ltd., UK “In the Graphene Flagship project, Work Package Production works as a technology enabler for real-world applications. Here we show the worlds first K-1 kayak (5.2 meters long), using graphene related materials developed by Grupo Antolin. We are very happy to see that graphene is creating value beyond traditional industries.” 

​Graphene Production – a Kitchen Sink Approach

Researchers from the Graphene Flagship have devised a way of producing large quantities of graphene by separating graphite flakes in liquids with a rotating tool that works in much the same way as a kitchen blender [4]. This paves the way to mass production of high quality graphene at a low cost.

The method was produced within the Graphene Flagship Work Package Production and is talked about further here by the WP deputy leader, Prof. Jonathan Coleman from Trinity College Dublin, Ireland “This technique produced graphene at higher rates than most other methods, and produced sheets of 2D materials that will be useful in a range of applications, from printed electronics to energy generation.” 

[4] Paton K.R., et al., Scalable production of large quantities of defect-free few-layer graphene by shear exfoliation in liquids. Nat. Mater. 13, 624 (2014).

Flexible Displays – Rolled Up in your Pocket

Working with researchers from the Graphene Flagship the Flagship partner, FlexEnable, demonstrated the world’s first flexible display with graphene incorporated into its pixel backplane. Combined with an electrophoretic imaging film, the result is a low-power, durable display suitable for use in many and varied environments.

Emerging from the Graphene Flagship Work Package Flexible Electronics this illustrates the power of collaboration.  Talking about this is the WP leader Dr Henrik Sandberg from the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Ltd., Finland “Here we show the power of collaboration. To deliver these flexible demonstrators and prototypes we have seen materials experts working together with components manufacturers and system integrators. These devices will have a potential impact in several emerging fields such as wearables and the Internet of Things.”

​Fibre-Optics Data Boost from Graphene

A team of researches from the Graphene Flagship have demonstrated high-performance photo detectors for infrared fibre-optic communication systems based on wafer-scale graphene [5]. This can increase the amount of information transferred whilst at the same time make the devises smaller and more cost effective.

Discussing this work which emerged from the Graphene Flagship Work Package Optoelectronics is the paper’s lead author, Daniel Schall from AMO, Germany “Graphene has outstanding properties when it comes to the mobility of its electric charge carriers, and this can increase the speed at which electronic devices operate.”

[5] Schall D., et al., 50 GBit/s Photodetectors Based on Wafer-Scale Graphene for Integrated Silicon Photonic Communication Systems. ACS Photonics. 1 (9), 781 (2014)

​Rechargeable Batteries with Graphene

A number of different research groups within the Graphene Flagship are working on rechargeable batteries. One group has developed a graphene-based rechargeable battery of the lithium-ion type used in portable electronic devices [6]. Graphene is incorporated into the battery anode in the form of a spreadable ink containing a suspension of graphene nanoflakes giving an increased energy efficiency of 20%. A second group of researchers have demonstrated a lithium-oxygen battery with high energy density, efficiency and stability [7]. They produced a device with over 90% efficiency that may be recharged more than 2,000 times. Their lithium-oxygen cell features a porous, ‘fluffy’ electrode made from graphene together with additives that alter the chemical reactions at work in the battery.

Graphene Flagship researchers show how the 2D material graphene can improve the energy capacity, efficiency and stability of lithium-oxygen batteries.

Both devices were developed in different groups within the Graphene Flagship Work Package Energy and speaking of the technology further is Prof. Clare Grey from Cambridge University, UK “What we’ve achieved is a significant advance for this technology, and suggests whole new areas for research – we haven’t solved all the problems inherent to this chemistry, but our results do show routes forward towards a practical device”.

[6] Liu T., et al. Cycling Li-O2 batteries via LiOH formation and decomposition. Science. 350, 6260, 530 (2015)

[7] Hassoun J., et al., An Advanced Lithium-Ion Battery Based on a Graphene Anode and a Lithium Iron Phosphate Cathode. Nano Lett., 14 (8), 4901 (2014)

Graphene – What and Why?

Graphene is a two-dimensional material formed by a single atom-thick layer of carbon, with the carbon atoms arranged in a honeycomb-like lattice. This transparent, flexible material has a number of unique properties. For example, it is 100 times stronger than steel, and conducts electricity and heat with great efficiency.

A number of practical applications for graphene are currently being developed. These include flexible and wearable electronics and antennas, sensors, optoelectronics and data communication systems, medical and bioengineering technologies, filtration, super-strong composites, photovoltaics and energy storage.

Graphene and Beyond

The Graphene Flagship also covers other layered materials, as well as hybrids formed by combining graphene with these complementary materials, or with other materials and structures, ranging from polymers, to metals, cement, and traditional semiconductors such as silicon. Graphene is just the first of thousands of possible single layer materials. The Flagship plans to accelerate their journey from laboratory to factory floor.

Especially exciting is the possibility of stacking monolayers of different elements to create materials not found in nature, with properties tailored for specific applications. Such composite layered materials could be combined with other nanomaterials, such as metal nanoparticles, in order to further enhance their properties and uses.​

Graphene – the Fruit of European Scientific Excellence

Europe, North America and Asia are all active centres of graphene R&D, but Europe has special claim to be at the centre of this activity. The ground-breaking experiments on graphene recognised in the award of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics were conducted by European physicists, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, both at Manchester University. Since then, graphene research in Europe has continued apace, with major public funding for specialist centres, and the stimulation of academic-industrial partnerships devoted to graphene and related materials. It is European scientists and engineers who as part of the Graphene Flagship are closely coordinating research efforts, and accelerating the transfer of layered materials from the laboratory to factory floor.

For anyone who would like links to the published papers, you can check out an April 20, 2016 news item featuring the Graphene Flagship highlights on Nanowerk.