Tag Archives: Future and Emerging Technologies

Graphene and an artificial retina

A graphene-based artificial retina project has managed to intermingle the European Union’s two major FET (Future and Emerging Technologies) funding projects, 1B Euros each to be disbursed over 10 years, the Graphene Flagship and the Human Brain Project. From an Aug. 7, 2014 Technische Universitaet Muenchen (TUM) news release (also on EurekAlert),

Because of its unusual properties, graphene holds great potential for applications, especially in the field of medical technology. A team of researchers led by Dr. Jose A. Garrido at the Walter Schottky Institut of the TUM is taking advantage of these properties. In collaboration with partners from the Institut de la Vision of the Université Pierre et Marie Curie in Paris and the French company Pixium Vision, the physicists are developing key components of an artificial retina made of graphene.

Retina implants can serve as optical prostheses for blind people whose optical nerves are still intact. The implants convert incident light into electrical impulses that are transmitted to the brain via the optical nerve. There, the information is transformed into images. Although various approaches for implants exist today, the devices are often rejected by the body and the signals transmitted to the brain are generally not optimal.

Already funded by the Human Brain Project as part of the Neurobotics effort, Garrido and his colleagues will now also receive funding from the Graphene Flagship. As of July 2014, the Graphene Flagship has added 86 new partners including TUM according to the news release.

Here’s an image of an ‘invisible’ graphene sensor (a precursor to developing an artificial retina),

Graphene electronics can be prepared on flexible substrates. Only the gold metal leads are visible in the transparent graphene sensor. (Photo: Natalia Hutanu / TUM)

Graphene electronics can be prepared on flexible substrates. Only the gold metal leads are visible in the transparent graphene sensor. (Photo: Natalia Hutanu / TUM)

Artificial retinas were first featured on this blog in an Aug. 18, 2011 posting about video game Deus Ex: Human Revolution which features a human character with artificial sight. The post includes links to a video of a scientist describing an artificial retina trial with 30 people and an Israeli start-up company, ‘Nano Retina’, along with information about ‘Eyeborg’, a Canadian filmmaker who on losing an eye in an accident had a camera implanted in the previously occupied eye socket.

More recently, a Feb. 15, 2013 posting featured news about the US Food and Drug Administration’s decision to allow sale of the first commercial artificial retinas in the US in the context of news about a neuroprosthetic implant in a rat which allowed it to see in the infrared range, normally an impossible feat.

Two bits about the brain: fiction affects your brain and the US’s BRAIN Initiative is soliciting grant submissions

As a writer I love to believe my words have a lasting impact and while this research is focused on fiction, something I write more rarely than nonfiction, hope springs eternal that one day nonfiction too will be proved as having an impact (in a good way) on the brain. From a Jan. 3, 2014 news release on EurekAlert (or you can read the Dec. 17, 2013 Emory University news release by Carol Clark),

Many people can recall reading at least one cherished story that they say changed their life. Now researchers at Emory University have detected what may be biological traces related to this feeling: Actual changes in the brain that linger, at least for a few days, after reading a novel.

“Stories shape our lives and in some cases help define a person,” says neuroscientist Gregory Berns, lead author of the study and the director of Emory’s Center for Neuropolicy. “We want to understand how stories get into your brain, and what they do to it.”

His co-authors included Kristina Blaine and Brandon Pye from the Center for Neuropolicy, and Michael Prietula from Emory’s Goizueta Business School.

Neurobiological research using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has begun to identify brain networks associated with reading stories. Most previous studies have focused on the cognitive processes involved in short stories, while subjects are actually reading them while they are in the fMRI scanner.

All of the study subjects read the same novel, “Pompeii,” a 2003 thriller by Robert Harris that is based on the real-life eruption of Mount Vesuvius in ancient Italy.

“The story follows a protagonist, who is outside the city of Pompeii and notices steam and strange things happening around the volcano,” Berns says. “He tries to get back to Pompeii in time to save the woman he loves. Meanwhile, the volcano continues to bubble and nobody in the city recognizes the signs.”

The researchers chose the book due to its page-turning plot. “It depicts true events in a fictional and dramatic way,” Berns says. “It was important to us that the book had a strong narrative line.”

For the first five days, the participants came in each morning for a base-line fMRI scan of their brains in a resting state. Then they were fed nine sections of the novel, about 30 pages each, over a nine-day period. They were asked to read the assigned section in the evening, and come in the following morning. After taking a quiz to ensure they had finished the assigned reading, the participants underwent an fMRI scan of their brain in a non-reading, resting state. After completing all nine sections of the novel, the participants returned for five more mornings to undergo additional scans in a resting state.

The results showed heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortex, an area of the brain associated with receptivity for language, on the mornings following the reading assignments. “Even though the participants were not actually reading the novel while they were in the scanner, they retained this heightened connectivity,” Berns says. “We call that a ‘shadow activity,’ almost like a muscle memory.”

Heightened connectivity was also seen in the central sulcus of the brain, the primary sensory motor region of the brain. Neurons of this region have been associated with making representations of sensation for the body, a phenomenon known as grounded cognition. Just thinking about running, for instance, can activate the neurons associated with the physical act of running.

“The neural changes that we found associated with physical sensation and movement systems suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist,” Berns says. “We already knew that good stories can put you in someone else’s shoes in a figurative sense. Now we’re seeing that something may also be happening biologically.”

The neural changes were not just immediate reactions, Berns says, since they persisted the morning after the readings, and for the five days after the participants completed the novel.

“It remains an open question how long these neural changes might last,” Berns says. “But the fact that we’re detecting them over a few days for a randomly assigned novel suggests that your favorite novels could certainly have a bigger and longer-lasting effect on the biology of your brain.”

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

Short- and Long-Term Effects of a Novel on Connectivity in the Brain by Gregory S. Berns, Kristina Blaine, Michael J. Prietula, and Brandon E. Pye. Brain Connectivity. 2013, 3(6): 590-600. doi:10.1089/brain.2013.0166.

This is an open access paper where you’ll notice the participants cover a narrow range of ages (from the Materials and Methods section of the paper,

A total of 21 participants were studied. Two were excluded from the fMRI analyses: one for insufficient attendance, and the other for image abnormalities. Before the experiment, participants were screened for the presence of medical and psychiatric diagnoses, and none were taking medications. There were 12 female and 9 male participants between the ages of 19 and 27 (mean 21.5). Emory University’s Institutional Review Board approved all procedures, and all participants gave written informed consent.

It’s always good to remember that university research often draws from student populations and the question one might want to ask is whether or not those results will remain the same, more or less, throughout someone’s life span.In any event, I find this research intriguing and hope they follow this up.

Currently known as the BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies), I first wrote about the project under its old name BAM (Brain Activity Map) in two postings, first in a March 4, 2013 posting featuring brain-to-brain communication and other brain-related tidbits, then again, in an April 2, 2013 posting featuring an announcement about its federal funding. Today (Jan. 6, 2014), I stumbled across some BRAIN funding opportunities for researchers, from the BRAIN Initiative funding opportunities webpage,

NIH released six funding opportunity announcements in support of the President’s BRAIN Initiative. Collectively, these opportunities focus on building a new arsenal of tools and technologies for helping scientists unlock the mysteries of the brain. NIH [US National Institutes of Health] plans to invest $40 million in Fiscal Year 2014 through these opportunities, contingent upon the submission of a sufficient number of scientifically meritorious applications.

The opportunities currently available are as follows:

For the interested, in the near future there will be some informational conference calls regarding these opportunities,

Informational Conference Calls for Prospective Applicants

NIH will be hosting a series of informational conference calls to address technical questions regarding applications to each of the RFAs released under the BRAIN Initiative.   Information on dates and contacts for each of the conference calls is as follows:

January 10, 2014, 2:00-3:00 PM EST
RFA-MH-14-215, Transformative Approaches for Cell-Type Classification in the Brain

For call-in information, contact Andrea Beckel-Mitchener at [email protected].

January 13, 2014, 2:00-3:00 PM EST
RFA-MH-14-216, Development and Validation of Novel Tools to Analyze Cell-Specific and Circuit-Specific Processes in the Brain

For call-in information, contact Michelle Freund at [email protected].

January 15, 2014, 1:00-2:00 PM EST
RFA-MH-14-217, Planning for Next Generation Human Brain Imaging

For call-in information, contact Greg Farber at [email protected].

February 4, 2014, 1:00-2:30 PM EST
RFA-NS-14-007, New Technologies and Novel Approaches for Large-Scale Recording and Modulation in the Nervous System
RFA-NS-14-008, Optimization of Transformative Technologies for Large Scale Recording and Modulation in the Nervous System
RFA-NS-14-009, Integrated Approaches to Understanding Circuit Function in the Nervous System

For call-in information, contact Karen David at [email protected].
In addition to accessing the information provided in the upcoming conference calls, applicants are strongly encouraged to consult with the Scientific/Research Contacts listed in each of the RFAs to discuss the alignment of their proposed work with the goals of the RFA to which they intend to apply.

Good luck!

It’s kind of fascinating to see this much emphasis on brains what with the BRAIN Initiative in the US and the Human Brain Project in Europe (my Jan. 28, 2013 posting announcing the European Union’s winning Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) research projects, The prizes (1B Euros to be paid out over 10 years to each winner) had been won by the Human Brain FET project and the Graphene FET project, respectively

INFERNOS: realizing Maxwell’s Demon

Before getting to the INFERNOS project and its relationship to Maxwell’s demon, I want to share a pretty good example of this ‘demon’ thought experiment which, as recently as Feb. 4, 2013, I featured in a piece about quantum dots,

James Clerk Maxwell, physicist,  has entered the history books for any number reasons but my personal favourite is Maxwell’s demon, a thought experiment he proposed in the 1800s to violate the 2nd law of thermodynamics. Lisa Zyga in her Feb. 1, 2013 article for phys.org provides an explanation,

When you open your door on a cold winter day, the warm air from your home and the cold air from outside begin to mix and evolve toward thermal equilibrium, a state of complete entropy where the temperatures outside and inside are the same. This situation is a rough example of the second law of thermodynamics, which says that entropy in a closed system never decreases. If you could control the air flow in a way that uses a sufficiently small amount of energy, so that the entropy of the system actually decreases overall, you would have a hypothetical mechanism called Maxwell’s demon.

An Oct. 9, 2013 news item on Nanowerk ties together INFERNOS and the ‘demon’,

Maxwell’s Demon is an imaginary creature that the mathematician James Clerk Maxwell created in 1897. The creature could turn heat into work without causing any other change, which violates the second law of thermodynamics. The primary goal of the European project INFERNOS (Information, fluctuations, and energy control in small systems) is to realize experimentally Maxwell’s Demon; in other words, to develop the electronic and biomolecular nanodevices that support this principle.

The Universitat de Barcelona (University of Barcelona) Oct. 7, 2013 news release, which originated the news item, provides more details about the project,

Although Maxwell’s Demon is one of the cornerstones of theoretical statistical mechanisms, little has been done about its definite experimental realization. Marco Ribezzi, researcher from the Department of Fundamental Physics, explains that “the principal novelty of INFERNOS is to bring a robust and rigorous experimental base for this field of knowledge. We aim at creating a device that can use information to supply/extract energy to/from a system”. In this sense, the UB group, in which researcher Fèlix Ritort from the former department also participates, focuses their activity on understanding how information and temperature changes are used in individual molecules manipulation.

From the theory side, researchers will work in order to develop a theory of the fluctuation processes in small systems, which would then facilitate efficient algorithms for the Maxwell’s Demon operation.

INFERNOS is a three-year European project of the programme Future and Emerging Technologies (FET). Besides the University of Barcelona, INFERNOS partners are: Aalto University (Finland), project coordinator, Lund University (Sweden), the University of Oslo (Norway), Delf University of Technology (Netherlands), the National Center for Scientific Research (France) and the Research Foundation of State University of New York.

I like the INFERNOS logo, demon and all,

Logo of the European project INFERNOS (Information, fluctuations, and energy control in small systems).

Logo of the European project INFERNOS (Information, fluctuations, and energy control in small systems).

The INFERNOS project website can be found here.

And for anyone who finds that music is the best way to learn, here are Flanders & Swann* performing ‘First and Second Law’ from a 1964 show,

Enjoy!

* ‘Swan’ corrected to ‘Swann’ on April 1, 2014.

Europe’s Horizon 2020 and nanotechnology

Michael Berger’s July 1, 2013 Nanowerk Spotlight article features a commentary on a recent European Union publication, Nanotechnology: the invisible giant tackling Europe’s future challenges, which provides an overview of the current nanotechnology efforts under the Framework Programme 7 (FP7) funding  and a very brief peek at plans underway for nanotechnology funding under the Horizon 2020 programme, successor to FP7 after 2013.

From Berger’s article,

A new publication by the European Commission outlines nanoscience and nanotechnology dedicated research expenditure in Europe over recent years, in particular via the 7th research framework programme (FP7). An overview is given of the main sectors where nanotechnology is enabling significant progress. It highlights a selection of exemplary projects financed through FP7 that are representative of major research themes, such as nanoelectronics, nanophotonics, nanobiotechnology, nanomedicine, self-assembly, catalysts, industrial applications, energy and environment, tools for investing the nanoscale, health/safety/environment and communication/societal impact. The final chapter focuses on future economic benefits for Europe, such as improving health care, rejuvenating traditional industries and bringing solutions to the most major challenges facing Europe, a secure affordable energy supply and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

I did take a look at the report which is 44 pp PDF (42 pp print version). It offers some insight into the areas where the EU has chosen to focus its energies.  I was hoping for something a little more panoramic in scope, i.e., I would have liked to have seen a listing of all their currently funded nanotechnology projects arranged by theme. Still, they do offer a table which shows the funding and number of projects according to programme themes (Note: The information for this table is from p. 10 PDF version; p. 8 print version of the report)

Programme /Themes Number of Projects Funding in € million
ERC 296 514,5
Health 18 74,0
Energy 19 55,0
Environment 3 10,5
Food, Agriculture & Fisheries, & Biotechnology 13 39,5
NMP 238 896,0
Joint programmes 32 112,0
ICT 102 316,0
Security 4 10,2
Aeronautics 5 44,0
SPACE 9 24,3
Sustainable Surface Transport 3 7,0
SME 35 41,6
Science in Society 14 15,0
EraNets 4 10,5
Infrastructure 16 60,0
Marie Curie Actions 560 295,0
Regions 19 28,7
International Cooperation 10 6,3
TOTAL 1400 2560,0

* FP7 Funding of Nanoscience-Nanotechnologies between 2007 and 2011 (source EC: Common Research Data Warehouse (CORDA))

Perhaps this (excerpted from the report) better explains things (Note: A footnote has been removed),

Given the broad-reaching potential of nanotechnology, there has been a commensurate explosion in global research and development funding in recent decades. According to estimates, governments around the world have invested over USD 67 billion in nanotechnology research since 2000 and by 2015 investment, including that from corporate and private sources, could reach USD 0.25 trillion.

Europe’s funding levels are largely comparable to its major competitors, the US and Japan, standing at EUR 6-7 billion in 2007/8. The EC is currently nearing the end of its largest ever research funding initiative, FP7, with a total of EUR 50.5 billion available during 2007-2013 to support projects boosting the region’s competitiveness and tackling the grand challenges facing society in human health, climate change, energy and the environment.

Under FP7, the largest single share of funding for nanotechnology, some EUR 896 million for the period 2007-2011, comes through the dedicated Nanosciences, Nanotechnologies, Materials and new Production Technologies (NMP) stream, but significant support also comes through the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) stream (EUR 316 million), as well as the Health (EUR 74 million), Energy (EUR 55 million) and biotechnology (KBBE) streams (EUR 39.5 million). Meanwhile, the funding mechanisms that support individual researchers also serve as a conduit for nanotechnology-related funds, with the European Research Council (ERC) accounting for an estimated EUR 514.5 million and Marie Curie fellowships a further EUR 295 million. (from p. 10 PDF; p. 8 print version)

Oddly, there’s no mention of China as a major competitor relative to funding investment in the nanotechnology sector. These days one usually mentions China.

What follows in the rest of the report after the table is an overview of nanotechnology projects as organized by the EU’s  main themes. They are not religious in their approach so don’t expect that the table categories are followed exactly.

Other than funding, I found the peek into the future the most interesting aspect of this report,

Nanotechnology has exploded in recent decades and is now one of the centrepieces of the EU’s research funding programme. With its broad reach across diverse fi elds, nanotechnology stands on the verge of launching a new technological revolution. But while Europe has embraced the exploration of the nanoscale, European Research, Innovation and Science Commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn warns that the region faces an “innovation crisis”.

The Commission is responding with a major new financial instrument, Horizon 2020, which will supersede the successful FP research funding initiatives when they come to a close at the end of the year. Running from 2014 to 2020, the proposed EUR 80 billion initiative aims to harness research and innovation to drive new growth and jobs in the region. For the first time, Horizon 2020 will bring together all research and innovation funding under one umbrella, including a EUR 24.6 billion dedicated science budget, EUR 17.9 billion for industrial innovation including a EUR 1.2 billion package specifi cally for small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), and EUR 31.75 billion targeted at the most pressing issues facing Europe such as climate change, sustainable transport, renewable energy and the medical care requirements of an ageing population.

One of the already identified cornerstones of the Horizon 2020 programme, under the Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) competition, will be a EUR 1 billion, ten-year sustained initiative dedicated to the investigation and exploitation of the unique properties of graphene. This exceptional nanomaterial possesses such remarkable physical and chemical properties that it has been dubbed the wonder material of the 21st century with far-reaching potential in electronics, transport, energy and medicine. The ‘Flagship’ effort on graphene, which will involve over 100 research groups and 136 principle investigators including four Nobel Laureates, indicates just how important nanotechnology is and will be over the coming decades.

But while the clear priority of the new funding programme is to bridge the gap between research and the market, the central tenant of the European research effort remains excellent science, without which there can be no progress. (p. 42 PDF; p. 40 print version)

I’m glad to see they mentioned the graphene flagship (its funding announcement was announced here in a Jan. 28, 2013 posting). The over allconclusion is that  nanotechnology is important to Europe’s future. Cynics might say they’d have to reach that conclusion given all the funding that nanotechnology research has received.

Montréal Neuro and one of Europe’s biggest research enterprises, the Human Brain Project

Its official title is the Montréal Neurological Institute and Hospital (Montréal Neuro) which is and has been, for several decades, an international centre for cutting edge neurological research. From the Jan. 28, 2013 news release on EurekAlert,

The Neuro

The Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital — The Neuro, is a unique academic medical centre dedicated to neuroscience. Founded in 1934 by the renowned Dr. Wilder Penfield, The Neuro is recognized internationally for integrating research, compassionate patient care and advanced training, all key to advances in science and medicine. The Neuro is a research and teaching institute of McGill University and forms the basis for the Neuroscience Mission of the McGill University Health Centre.

Neuro researchers are world leaders in cellular and molecular neuroscience, brain imaging, cognitive neuroscience and the study and treatment of epilepsy, multiple sclerosis and neuromuscular disorders. For more information, visit theneuro.com.

Nonetheless, it was a little surprising to see that ‘The Neuro’ is part one of the biggest research projects in history since it’s the European Union, which is bankrolling the project (see my posting about the Jan. 28, 2013 announcement of the winning FET Flagship Initatives). Here’s more information about the project, its lead researchers, and Canada’s role, from the news release,

The goal of the Human Brain Project is to pull together all our existing knowledge about the human brain and to reconstruct the brain, piece by piece, in supercomputer-based models and simulations. The models offer the prospect of a new understanding of the human brain and its diseases and of completely new computing and robotic technologies. On January 28 [2013], the European Commission supported this vision, announcing that it has selected the HBP as one of two projects to be funded through the new FET [Future and Emerging Technologies] Flagship Program.

Federating more than 80 European and international research institutions, the Human Brain Project is planned to last ten years (2013-2023). The cost is estimated at 1.19 billion euros. The project will also associate some important North American and Japanese partners. It will be coordinated at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland, by neuroscientist Henry Markram with co-directors Karlheinz Meier of Heidelberg University, Germany, and Richard Frackowiak of Centre Hospitalier Universitaire Vaudois (CHUV) and the University of Lausanne (UNIL).

Canada’s role in this international project is through Dr. Alan Evans of the Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI) at McGill University. His group has developed a high-performance computational platform for neuroscience (CBRAIN) and multi-site databasing technologies that will be used to assemble brain imaging data across the HBP. He is also collaborating with European scientists on the creation of ultra high-resolution 3D brain maps. «This ambitious project will integrate data across all scales, from molecules to whole-brain organization. It will have profound implications for our understanding of brain development in children and normal brain function, as well as for combatting brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s Disease,» said Dr. Evans. “The MNI’s pioneering work on brain imaging technology has led to significant advances in our understanding of the brain and neurological disorders,” says Dr. Guy Rouleau, Director of the MNI. “I am proud that our expertise is a key contributor to this international program focused on improving quality of life worldwide.”

“The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) is delighted to acknowledge the outstanding contributions of Dr. Evans and his team. Their work on the CBRAIN infrastructure and this leading-edge HBP will allow the integration of Canadian neuroscientists into an eventual global brain project,” said Dr. Anthony Phillips, Scientific Director for the CIHR Institute of Neurosciences, Mental Health and Addiction. “Congratulations to the Canadian and European researchers who will be working collaboratively towards the same goal which is to provide insights into neuroscience that will ultimately improve people’s health.”

“From mapping the sensory and motor cortices of the brain to pioneering work on the mechanisms of memory, McGill University has long been synonymous with world-class neuroscience research,” says Dr. Rose Goldstein, Vice-Principal (Research and International Relations). “The research of Dr. Evans and his team marks an exciting new chapter in our collective pursuit to unlock the potential of the human brain and the entire nervous system – a critical step that would not be possible without the generous support of the European Commission and the FET Flagship Program.”

Canada is not the only non-European Union country making an announcement about its role in this extraordinary project. There’s a Jan. 28, 2013 news release on EurekAlert touting Israel’s role,

The European Commission has chosen the Human Brain Project, in which the Hebrew University of Jerusalem is participating, as one of two Future and Emerging Technologies Flagship topics. The enterprise will receive funding of 1.19 billion euros over the next decade.

The project will bring together top scientists from around the world who will work on one of the great challenges of modern science: understanding the human brain. Participating from Israel will a team of eight scientists, led by Prof. Idan Segev of the Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Brain Sciences (ELSC) at the Hebrew University, Prof. Yadin Dudai of the Weizmann Institute of Science, and Dr. Mira Marcus-Kalish of Tel Aviv University.

More than 80 universities and research institutions in Europe and the world will be involved in the ten-year Human Brain Project, which will commence later this year and operate until the year 2023. The project will be centered at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland, headed by Prof. Henry Markram, a former Israeli who was recruited ten years ago to the EPFL.

The participation of the Israeli scientists testifies to the leading role that Israeli brain research occupies in the world, said Israeli President Shimon Peres. “Israel has put brain research at the heart of its efforts for the coming decade, and our country is already spearheading the global effort towards the betterment of our understanding of mankind. I am confident that the forthcoming discoveries will benefit a wide range of domains, from health to industry, as well as our society as a whole,” Peres said.

“The human brain is the most complex and amazing structure in the universe, yet we are very far from understanding it. In a way, we are strangers to ourselves. Unraveling the mysteries of the brain will help us understand our functioning, our choices, and ultimately ourselves. I congratulate the European Commission for its vision in selecting the Human Brain Project as a Flagship Mission for the forthcoming decade,” said Peres.

What’s amusing is that as various officials and interested parties (such as myself) wax lyrical about these projects, most of the rest of the world is serenely oblivious to it all.

Graphene and Human Brain Project win biggest research award in history (& this is the 2000th post)

The European Commission has announced the two winners of its FET (Future and Emerging Technologies) Flagships Initiative in a Jan. 28, 2013 news release,

The winning Graphene and Human Brain initiatives are set to receive one billion euros each, to deliver 10 years of world-beating science at the crossroads of science and technology. Each initiative involves researchers from at least 15 EU Member States and nearly 200 research institutes.

“Graphene” will investigate and exploit the unique properties of a revolutionary carbon-based material. Graphene is an extraordinary combination of physical and chemical properties: it is the thinnest material, it conducts electricity much better than copper, it is 100-300 times stronger than steel and it has unique optical properties. The use of graphene was made possible by European scientists in 2004, and the substance is set to become the wonder material of the 21st century, as plastics were to the 20th century, including by replacing silicon in ICT products.

The “Human Brain Project” will create the world’s largest experimental facility for developing the most detailed model of the brain, for studying how the human brain works and ultimately to develop personalised treatment of neurological and related diseases. This research lays the scientific and technical foundations for medical progress that has the potential to will dramatically improve the quality of life for millions of Europeans.

The European Commission will support “Graphene” and the “Human Brain Project” as FET “flagships” over 10 years through its research and innovation funding programmes. Sustained funding for the full duration of the project will come from the EU’s research framework programmes, principally from the Horizon 2020 programme (2014-2020) which is currently negotiated in the European Parliament and Council.

European Commission Vice President Neelie Kroes said: “Europe’s position as a knowledge superpower depends on thinking the unthinkable and exploiting the best ideas. This multi-billion competition rewards home-grown scientific breakthroughs and shows that when we are ambitious we can develop the best research in Europe. To keep Europe competitive, to keep Europe as the home of scientific excellence, EU governments must agree an ambitious budget for the Horizon 2020 programme in the coming weeks.”

“Graphene” is led by Prof. Jari Kinaret, from Sweden’s Chalmers University. The Flagship involves over 100 research groups, with 136 principal investigators, including four Nobel laureates. “The Human Brain Project” involves scientists from 87 institutions and is led by Prof. Henry Markram of the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne.

As noted in my Jan. 24, 2013 posting about the new Cambridge Graphene Centre in the UK, while the Graphene flagship lead is from Sweden, the UK  has more educational institutions than any other country party to the flagship consortium.

Here are some funding details from the Jan. 28, 2013 news release,

Horizon 2020 is the new EU programme for research and innovation, presented by the Commission as part of its EU budget proposal for 2014 to 2020. In order to give a boost to research and innovation as a driver of growth and jobs, the Commission has proposed an ambitious budget of €80 billion over seven years, including the FET flagship programme itself.

The winners will receive up to €54 million from the European Commission’s ICT 2013 Work Programme. Further funding will come from subsequent EU research framework programmes, private partners including universities, Member States and industry.

1 billion Euros sounds like a lot of money but it’s being paid out over 10 years (100 million per year) and through many institutional layers at the European Commission and at the educational institutions themselves. One wonders how much of the money will go to research rather than administration.

2000th posting: My heartfelt thanks to everyone who has taken the time to read this blog and and to those who’ve taken the time to comment on the blog, on Twitter, or directly to me. Your interest has kept this blog going far longer than I believed it would.

Latest on UK and graphene

The Brits are at it again with another graphene funding announcement, from the Dec. 28, 2012 news item on Azonano,

The Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne MP, today announced £21.5 million of capital investment to commercialise graphene, one of the thinnest, lightest, strongest and most conductive materials to have been discovered, marked by the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics as one of the world’s most ground breaking scientific achievements.

Three research projects at Imperial will share the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) funding as part of a new programme with a number of industrial partners, including aeroplane manufacturer Airbus. The scientists receiving the grant hope to develop graphene technologies that will contribute to the UK economy and can be applied by industries around the world.

The Imperial College of London Dec. 27, 2012 news release, which originated the item, describes how the college’s £4.5M award will be used for three of its graphene projects,

In one project worth £1.35 million, led by Professor Tony Kinloch from the Department of Mechanical Engineering with colleagues from the Departments of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, researchers will explore how combining graphene with current materials can improve the properties of aeroplane parts, such as making them resistant to lightning-strikes. They hope the same technology can also be used to develop coatings for wind-turbine blades, to make them scratch resistant and physically tougher in extreme weather conditions.

Professor Eduardo Saiz, from the Department of Materials, will develop new manufacturing processes using liquids that contain tiny suspended particles of graphene, in order to reduce the cost of currently expensive industrial techniques. This project will receive £1.91 million funding and involves scientists from Imperial’s Departments of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, and Queen Mary, University of London.

£1.37 million of funding received by Professor Norbert Klein, also from the Department of Materials and shared with Imperial’s Department of Physics, will pay for new equipment to deposit extremely thin sheets of graphene, so scientists can explore its electrical properties. They hope that new medical scanning technology may be developed as a result of how graphene responds to high frequency electromagnetic waves, from microwave to terahertz frequencies and all the way to the wavelengths of visible light.

As noted on numerous occasions here  (most recently in an Oct. 11, 2012 posting), there is a competition for two prizes of 1 billion Euros each to be awarded to two European research projects in the European Union’s Future and Emerging Technologies Initiatives (FET). There are six flagship projects (whittled down from a larger number a few years ago) competing to be one of the two winners. There’s more about the FET Graphene Flagship project here. As you might expect, the Brits are heavily involved in the graphene flagship project.

European consultation on Future and Emerging Technologies

I’ve checked this out and it seems to be open to people from all countries even though it’s a consultation about European research according to the Oct. 30, 2012 news item on Nanowerk,

The European Commission is launching a public consultation to identify promising and potentially game-changing directions for future technological research.

The research directions for future and emerging technologies will shape our economy for decades to come. The right strategic choices will mean a better future for all, from protecting our environments to providing better healthcare to Europeans. Therefore the Commission is inviting scientists, researchers, engineers, innovators, artists, entrepreneurs and individuals to submit their ideas before November 30th 2012. Do you have a big idea for the future? Then let us know!

The consultation is structured under two themes: research direction in FET and arguments for the importance of this research. All interested parties can submit their ideas on what this research should be and its expected impact. The contributors to the public consultation are invited to answer a series of concrete questions on FET research and its contribution to some of the great societal challenges of our age, like global warming, energy supply, pollution, ageing of society, global crises, peace or democratic deficit.

I have mentioned the Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) funding initiatives previously in my Feb. 13, 2012 posting. This news item mentions a few FET projects I haven’t encountered before,

Examples of how FET is changing the face of European research include:

In 2000, FET launched a major initiative on NEURO-ICT, bringing together for the first time scientists from life sciences and neurophysiology, and computer scientists and engineers to co-develop understanding about the human brain. This work has resulted in a number of new research directions and industrial spin-off companies, for example, in the areas of “machines that think”, or the development of novel clinical tools that can help in the diagnosis and treatment of brain disease.

FET launched ‘Proactive Initiatives’ on Nano technology and Quantum ICT, involving researchers who went on to win two Nobel Prizes for Physics. The initiatives bring together physicists and software and hardware engineers to develop new forms of computer technology.

FET launched a Proactive Initiative on Bio-chemistry-based information technology which has created since 2009 the first research union at the intersection of biology, chemistry and information technologies.

A related FET program, “FET Flagships” is offering €1billion in funding to two projects looking to solve “grand challenges” faced by Europe, with winners to be decided in 2013.

Follow the ‘graphene brick’ road

Today (Oct. 11, 2012), I’m highlighting a second article in Nature. This time it’s a “A roadmap for graphene ” (behind a paywall) in the Oct. 11, 2012 online issue of Nature written by Nobel Prize-winner Professor Kostya Novoselov of the University of Manchester; V. I. Fal′ko Department of Physics, Lancaster University;  L. Colombo, Texas Instruments Incorporated; P. R. Gellert, AstraZeneca; M. G. Schwab, BASF SE; and K. Kim, Samsung Advanced Institute of Technology.

If you can get behind the paywall, the article offers excellent insight into the state of graphene research and the state of graphene applications.  The authors cover:

Challenges in Production

Chemical vapour deposition

Synthesis on SiC

Other growth methods

Graphene electronics

Flexible electronics

High-frequency transistors

Logic transistor

Photonics

Photodetectors

Optical modulator

Mode-locked laser/THz generator

Optical polarization controller

Composite materials, paints, and coating

Energy generation and storage

Graphene for sensors and metrology

Bioapplications

You can get more details about the article from the Oct. 11, 2012 news release from the University of Manchester,

The authors estimate that the first graphene touchscreen devices could be on the market within three to five years, but will only realise its full potential in flexible electronics applications.

Rollable e-paper is another application which should be available as a prototype by 2015 – graphene’s flexibility proving ideal for fold-up electronic sheets which could revolutionise electronics.

Timescales for applications vary greatly upon the quality of graphene required, the report claims. For example, the researchers estimate devices including photo-detectors, high-speed wireless communications and THz generators (for use in medical imaging and security devices) would not be available until at least 2020, while anticancer drugs and graphene as a replacement for silicon is unlikely to become a reality until around 2030.

I notice the lead authors are from the University of Manchester and Lancaster University. These UK educational institutions are part of the FET (Future and Emerging Technologies) GRAPHENE-CA flagship project, which is in competition for one of two prizes of 1B Euros for research. As I’ve noted previously in my Feb. 21, 2012 posting and many others, the UK is leading a tremendous public relations/marketing campaign on behalf of this project and the UK’s own interests. Good luck to them as I believe the announcement of which are the two winning projects from a field of six should be made in the next few months.

The current international infatuation with roadmaps sometimes reminds me of The Wizard of Oz and the Yellow Brick Road,

I always appreciate the optimism shown by the lead character, Dorothy, as she takes off for parts unknown.

Pourable electronics?

A group of scientists at Ruhr Universtät Bochum (RUB) have won a European Union Competition Call for proposals in Unconventional Computing.

A new concept to me, I looked for a description of ‘unconventional computing’ and found this by Susan Stepney in an April 2011 issue of ERCIM [European Research Consortium for Informatics and Mathematics] News,

Despite being formulated post-relativity and post-quantum mechanics, classical Turing computation is essentially based in classical physics. This is understandable given the source of its abstraction, but today’s nano-scale computer components are embodied in the quantum world. …

The Turing model was inspired by a single paradigm: the actions of human clerks. Unconventional computation can be inspired by the whole of wider nature. We can look to physics (from general relativity and quantum mechanics, to annealing processes, analogue computing, and on to fully embodied computation), to chemistry (reaction-diffusion systems, complex chemical reactions, DNA binding), and to biology (bacteria, flocks, social insects, evolution, growth and self-assembly, immune systems, neural systems), to mention just a few.

Here’s a description of the competition that these scientists entered, from the Unconventional Computation (UCOMP) page on the Future and Emerging Technology (FET) website,

Nature (e.g. living cells), and our physical environment in general, show many unconventional ways of information processing, such as those based on (bio-)chemical, natural, wetware, DNA, molecular, amorphous, reversible, analogue computing, etc. These are generally very sophisticated, ingenious and highly effective for specific purposes, but sufficient knowledge (either from a theoretical or an engineering perspective) to properly exploit, mimic, or adapt these systems, is lacking.

Proposals should develop alternative approaches for situations or problems that are challenging or impossible to solve with conventional methods and models of computation (i.e. von Neumann [John von Neumann], Turing [Alan Turing]). Typical examples include computing in vivo, and performing massively parallel computation.

Here’s how the winning project is described in the Aug. 29, 2012 news item on Nanowerk,

First place in an EU competitive call on “Unconventional Computing” was awarded to a collaborative proposal coordinated by Prof. John McCaskill from the RUB Faculty of Chemistry and Biochemistry. The project MICREAgents plans to build autonomous self-assembling electronic microreagents that are almost as small as cells. They will exchange chemical and electronic information to jointly direct complex chemical reactions and analyses in the solutions they are poured into. This is a form of embedded computation – “to compute is to construct” – in which for example the output is a particular catalyst or coating needed in the (input) local chemical environment. The EU supports the project within the FP7 programme with 3.4 million Euros for three years. Four research groups at RUB will join forces with top teams across Europe, from Israel and New Zealand.

Bit of a challenge understanding it, eh? The RUB Aug. 29, 2012 press release (it originated the news item on Nanowerk), offers some background information about some of the ideas and work leading to the winning collaboration,

John von Neumann envisioned information devices that can construct more complex machines than themselves, in his theory of self-reproducing automata2, but he did not arrive at a robust architecture for this. Modern initiatives towards Living Technology, exploiting the core properties of living systems to push back this frontier, have been spearheaded by RUB in the past decade. McCaskill cofounded (2004-5) the European Centre for Living Technology in Venice (ECLT), an ongoing multi-university institution of which RUB is a member. He has also helped to link up a world-wide community on Sustainable Personal Living Technology (2010). This initiative requires a fundamental integration of molecular construction and information processing and thereby of chemistry and ICT (information and communication technology). Currently, RUB is assembling a roadmap in an EU coordination action (COBRA) for the area of chem-bio ICT, and indeed this integration is most developed in biological organisms. The MICREAgents project represents the next major research program towards these overarching initiatives, one that could change the level of fine-grained algorithmic control in chemical construction, bringing the important social goal of sustainable personal fabrication one step closer.

Here’s a description of what the scientists are planning to do (from the RUB press release),

In order to create this programmable microscale electronic chemistry, MICRE-Agents (Microscopic Chemically Reactive Electronic Agents) will contain electronic circuits on 3D microchips (called lablets, diameter ≤ 100 μm) that self-assemble in pairs or like dominos to enclose transient reaction compartments, using the electronics to control chemical access, surface coatings and reactions via physical and chemical processes such as electroosmosis, electrowetting and electrochemistry. Chemicals can be selectively concentrated, processed and released into the surrounding solution, under local electronic control, in a similar way to which the genetic information in cells controls local chemical processes. The reversible pairwise association in solution of electronic surfaces in the nanometer range will also be used to avoid the prohibitive energetic costs of broadcast communication, allowing lablets to transfer information (including heritable information) from one to another. The lablet devices will integrate transistors, supercapacitors, energy transducers, sensors and actuators, involving electronically constructed nanofilms, and will be essentially genetically encoded, translating electronic signals into constructive chemical processing and recording the results of this processing. [emphais mine] Instead of making chemical reactors to contain chemicals, the smart MICREAgents will be poured into chemical mixtures, to organize the chemistry from within. Ultimately, such microreactors, like cells in the bloodstream, will open up the possibility of controlling complex chemistry from the inside out.

I’m far out of my comfort zone with this material so these questions may not be relevant but I wonder how the lablets, which will self-assemble and integrate supercapacitors, transistors, transducers, etc., will be constituted and how they will be produced. No details are offered in the RUB press release but there is this paragraph, which seems to be discussing future applications,

MICREAgents will provide an unconventional form of computation that microscopically links reaction processing with computation in autonomous mobile smart reactors. This corresponds to a radical integration of autonomous chemical experimentation, a very recent research area, and represents a novel form of computation intertwined with construction. The self-assembling smart micro reactors can be programmed for molecular amplification and other chemical processing pathways, that start from complex mixtures, concentrate and purify chemicals, perform reactions in programmed cascades, sense completion, and transport and release products to defined locations. The project defines a continuous achievable path towards this ambitious goal, making use of a novel pairwise local communication strategy to overcome the limitations of current smart dust and autonomous sensor network communication. It will provide a technical platform spawning research in new computing paradigms that integrate multilevel construction with electronic ICT.

Based on the description of the competition, they seem to be working towards integration of electronics with materials in a way that mimics nature/the human body. It almost seems that this work could lead to buildings and other constructions that are sentient in some fashion or other.