Tag Archives: Germany

Do artists see colour at the nanoscale? It would seem so

I’ve wondered how Japanese artists of the 16th to 18th centuries were able to beat gold down to the nanoscale for application to screens. How could they see what they were doing? I may have an answer at last. According to some new research, it seems that the human eye can detect colour at the nanoscale.

Before getting to the research, here’s the Namban screen story.

Japanese Namban Screen. ca. 1550. In Portugal-Japão: 450 anos de memórias. Embaixada de Portugal no Japão, 1993. [downloaded from http://www.indiana.edu/~liblilly/digital/exhibitions/exhibits/show/portuguese-speaking-diaspora/china-and-japan]

Japanese Namban Screen. ca. 1550. In Portugal-Japão: 450 anos de memórias. Embaixada de Portugal no Japão, 1993. [downloaded from http://www.indiana.edu/~liblilly/digital/exhibitions/exhibits/show/portuguese-speaking-diaspora/china-and-japan]

This image is from an Indiana University at Bloomington website featuring a page titled, Portuguese-Speaking Diaspora,

A detail from one of four large folding screens on display in the Museu de Arte Antiga in Lisbon. Namban was the word used to refer to Portuguese traders who, in this scene, are dressed in colorful pantaloons and accompanied by African slaves. Jesuits appear in black robes, while the Japanese observe the newcomers from inside their home. The screen materials included gold-covered copper and paper, tempera paint, silk, and lacquer.

Copyright © 2015 The Trustees of Indiana University

Getting back to the Japanese artists, here’s how their work was described in a July 2, 2014 Springer press release on EurekAlert,

Ancient Japanese gold leaf artists were truly masters of their craft. An analysis of six ancient Namban paper screens show that these artifacts are gilded with gold leaf that was hand-beaten to the nanometer scale. [emphasis mine] Study leader Sofia Pessanha of the Atomic Physics Center of the University of Lisbon in Portugal believes that the X-ray fluorescence technique her team used in the analysis could also be used to date other artworks without causing any damage to them. The results are published in Springer’s journal Applied Physics A: Materials Science & Processing.

Gold leaf refers to a very thin sheet made from a combination of gold and other metals. It has almost no weight and can only be handled by specially designed tools. Even though the ancient Egyptians were probably the first to gild artwork with it, the Japanese have long been credited as being able to produce the thinnest gold leaf in the world. In Japanese traditional painting, decorating with gold leaf is named Kin-haku, and the finest examples of this craft are the Namban folding screens, or byobu. These were made during the late Momoyama (around 1573 to 1603) and early Edo (around 1603 to 1868) periods.

Pessanha’s team examined six screens that are currently either part of a museum collection or in a private collection in Portugal. Four screens belong to the Momoyama period, and two others were decorated during the early Edo period. The researchers used various X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy techniques to test the thickness and characteristics of the gold layers. The method is completely non-invasive, no samples needed to be taken, and therefore the artwork was not damaged in any way. Also, the apparatus needed to perform these tests is portable and can be done outside of a laboratory.

The gilding was evaluated by taking the attenuation or weakening of the different characteristic lines of gold leaf layers into account. The methodology was tested to be suitable for high grade gold alloys with a maximum of 5 percent influence of silver, which is considered negligible.

The two screens from the early Edo period were initially thought to be of the same age. However, Pessanha’s team found that gold leaf on a screen kept at Museu Oriente in Lisbon was thinner, hence was made more recently. This is in line with the continued development of the gold beating techniques carried out in an effort to obtain ever thinner gold leaf.

So, how did these artists beat gold leaf down to the nanoscale and then use the sheets in their art work? This July 10, 2015 news item on Azonano may help to answer that question,

The human eye is an amazing instrument and can accurately distinguish between the tiniest, most subtle differences in color. Where human vision excels in one area, it seems to fall short in others, such as perceiving minuscule details because of the natural limitations of human optics.

In a paper published today in The Optical Society’s new, high-impact journal Optica, a research team from the University of Stuttgart, Germany and the University of Eastern Finland, Joensuu, Finland, has harnessed the human eye’s color-sensing strengths to give the eye the ability to distinguish between objects that differ in thickness by no more than a few nanometers — about the thickness of a cell membrane or an individual virus.

A July 9, 2015 Optical Society news release (also on EurkeAlert), which originated the news item, provides more details,

This ability to go beyond the diffraction limit of the human eye was demonstrated by teaching a small group of volunteers to identify the remarkably subtle color differences in light that has passed through thin films of titanium dioxide under highly controlled and precise lighting conditions. The result was a remarkably consistent series of tests that revealed a hitherto untapped potential, one that rivals sophisticated optics tools that can measure such minute thicknesses, such as ellipsometry.

“We were able to demonstrate that the unaided human eye is able to determine the thickness of a thin film — materials only a few nanometers thick — by simply observing the color it presents under specific lighting conditions,” said Sandy Peterhänsel, University of Stuttgart, Germany and principal author on the paper. The actual testing was conducted at the University of Eastern Finland.

The Color and Thickness of Thin Films

Thin films are essential for a variety of commercial and manufacturing applications, including anti-reflective coatings on solar panels. These films can be as small as a few to tens of nanometers thick. The thin films used in this experiment were created by applying layer after layer of single atoms on a surface. Though highly accurate, this is a time-consuming procedure and other techniques like vapor deposition are used in industry.

The optical properties of thin films mean that when light interacts with their surfaces it produces a wide range of colors. This is the same phenomenon that produces scintillating colors in soap bubble and oil films on water.

The specific colors produced by this process depend strongly on the composition of the material, its thickness, and the properties of the incoming light. This high sensitivity to both the material and thickness has sometimes been used by skilled engineers to quickly estimate the thickness of films down to a level of approximately 10-20 nanometers.

This observation inspired the research team to test the limits of human vision to see how small of a variation could be detected under ideal conditions.

“Although the spatial resolving power of the human eye is orders of magnitude too weak to directly characterize film thicknesses, the interference colors are well known to be very sensitive to variations in the film,” said Peterhänsel.

Experimental Setup

The setup for this experiment was remarkably simple. A series of thin films of titanium dioxide were manufactured one layer at a time by atomic deposition. While time consuming, this method enabled the researchers to carefully control the thickness of the samples to test the limitations of how small a variation the research subjects could identify.

The samples were then placed on a LCD monitor that was set to display a pure white color, with the exception of a colored reference area that could be calibrated to match the apparent surface colors of the thin films with various thicknesses.

The color of the reference field was then changed by the test subject until it perfectly matched the reference sample: correctly identifying the color meant they also correctly determined its thickness. This could be done in as little as two minutes, and for some samples and test subjects their estimated thickness differed only by one-to-three nanometers from the actual value measured by conventional means. This level of precision is far beyond normal human vision.

Compared to traditional automated methods of determining the thickness of a thin film, which can take five to ten minutes per sample using some techniques, the human eye performance compared very favorably.

Since human eyes tire very easily, this process is unlikely to replace automated methods. It can, however, serve as a quick check by an experienced technician. “The intention of our study never was solely to compare the human color vision to much more sophisticated methods,” noted Peterhänsel. “Finding out how precise this approach can be was the main motivation for our work.”

The researchers speculate that it may be possible to detect even finer variations if other control factors are put in place. “People often underestimate human senses and their value in engineering and science. This experiment demonstrates that our natural born vision can achieve exceptional tasks that we normally would only assign to expensive and sophisticated machinery,” concludes Peterhänsel.

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

Human color vision provides nanoscale accuracy in thin-film thickness characterization by Sandy Peterhänsel, Hannu Laamanen, Joonas Lehtolahti, Markku Kuittinen, Wolfgang Osten, and Jani Tervo. Optica Vol. 2, Issue 7, pp. 627-630 (2015) •doi: 10.1364/OPTICA.2.000627

This article appears to be open access.

It would seem that the artists creating the Namban screens exploited the ability to see at the nanoscale, which leads me to  wonder how many people who work with color/colour all the time such as visual artists, interior designers, graphic designers, printers, and more can perceive at the nanoscale. These German and Finnish researchers may want to work with some of these professionals in their next study.

Superposition in biological processes

Applying the concept of superposition to photosynthesis and olfaction is not the first thought that would have occurred to me on stumbling across the European Union’s PAPETS project (Phonon-Assisted Processes for Energy Transfer and Sensing). Thankfully, a July 9, 2015 news item on Nanowerk sets the record straight (Note: A link has been removed),

Quantum physics is helping researchers to better understand photosynthesis and olfaction.

Can something be for instance in two different places at the same time? According to quantum physics, it can. More precisely, in line with the principle of ‘superposition’, a particle can be described as being in two different states simultaneously.

While it may sound like voodoo to the non-expert, superposition is based on solid science. Researchers in the PAPETS project are exploring this and other phenomena on the frontier between biology and quantum physics. Their goal is to determine the role of vibrational dynamics in photosynthesis and olfaction.

A July 7, 2015 research news article on the CORDIS website, which originated the news item, further explains (Note: A link has been removed),

Quantum effects in a biological system, namely in a photosynthetic complex, were first observed by Greg Engel and collaborators in 2007, in the USA. These effects were reproduced in different laboratories at a temperature of around -193 degrees Celsius and subsequently at ambient temperature.

‘What’s surprising and exciting is that these quantum effects have been observed in biological complexes, which are large, wet and noisy systems,’ says PAPETS project coordinator, Dr. Yasser Omar, researcher at Instituto de Telecomunicações and professor at Universidade de Lisboa [Portugal]. ‘Superposition is fragile and we would expect it to be destroyed by the environment.’

Superposition contributes to more efficient energy transport. An exciton, a quantum quasi-particle carrying energy, can travel faster along the photosynthetic complex due to the fact that it can exist in two states simultaneously. When it comes to a bifurcation it need not choose left or right. It can proceed down both paths simultaneously.

‘It’s like a maze,’ says Dr. Omar. ‘Only one door leads to the exit but the exciton can probe both left and right at the same time. It’s more efficient.’

Dr. Omar and his colleagues believe that a confluence of factors help superposition to be effected and maintained, namely the dynamics of the vibrating environment, whose role is precisely what the PAPETS project aims to understand and exploit.

Theory and experimentation meet

The theories being explored by PAPETS are also tested in experiments to validate them and gain further insights. To study quantum transport in photosynthesis, for example, researchers shoot fast laser pulses into biological systems. They then observe interference along the transport network, a signature of wavelike phenomena.

‘It’s like dropping stones into a lake,’ explains Dr. Omar. ‘You can then see whether the waves that are generated grow bigger or cancel each other when they meet.’

Applications: more efficient solar cells and odour detection

While PAPETS is essentially an exploratory project, it is generating insights that could have practical applications. PAPETS’ researchers are getting a more fundamental understanding of how photosynthesis works and this could result in the design of much more efficient solar cells.

Olfaction, the capacity to recognise and distinguish different odours, is another promising area. Experiments focus on the behaviour of Drosophila flies. So far, researchers suspect that the tunnelling of electrons associated to the internal vibrations of a molecule may be a signature of odour. Dr. Omar likens this tunnelling to a ping-pong ball resting in a bowl that goes through the side of the bowl to appear outside it.

This work could have applications in the food, water, cosmetics or drugs industries. Better artificial odour sensing could be used to detect impurities or pollution, for example.

‘Unlike seeing, hearing or touching, the sense of smell is difficult to reproduce artificially with high efficacy,’ says Dr. Omar.

The PAPETS project, involving 7 partners, runs from September 2014 to August 2016 and has a budgeted EU contribution funding of EUR 1.8 million.

You can find out more about PAPETS here. In the meantime, I found the other partners in the project (in addition to Portugal), from the PAPETS Partners webpage (Note: Links have been removed),

– Controlled Quantum Dynamics Group, Universität Ulm (UULM), Germany. PI: Martin Plenio and Susana Huelga.
– Biophysics Research Group, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VUA), Netherlands. PI: Rienk van Grondelle and Roberta Croce.
– Department of Chemical Sciences, Università degli Studi di Padova (UNIPD), Italy. PI: Elisabetta Collini.
– Biomedical Sciences Research Centre “Alexander Fleming” (FLEMING), Athens, Greece. PI: Luca Turin and Efthimios M. Skoulakis.
– Biological Physics and Complex Systems Group, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), Orléans, France. PI: Francesco Piazza.
– Quantum Physics of Biomolecular Processes, University College London (UCL), UK. PI: Alexandra Olaya-Castro.

Replace silicon with black phosphorus instead of graphene?

I have two black phosphorus pieces. This first piece of research comes out of ‘La belle province’ or, as it’s more usually called, Québec (Canada).

Foundational research on phosphorene

There’s a lot of interest in replacing silicon for a number of reasons and, increasingly, there’s interest in finding an alternative to graphene.

A July 7, 2015 news item on Nanotechnology Now describes a new material for use as transistors,

As scientists continue to hunt for a material that will make it possible to pack more transistors on a chip, new research from McGill University and Université de Montréal adds to evidence that black phosphorus could emerge as a strong candidate.

In a study published today in Nature Communications, the researchers report that when electrons move in a phosphorus transistor, they do so only in two dimensions. The finding suggests that black phosphorus could help engineers surmount one of the big challenges for future electronics: designing energy-efficient transistors.

A July 7, 2015 McGill University news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, describes the field of 2D materials and the research into black phosphorus and its 2D version, phosperene (analogous to graphite and graphene),

“Transistors work more efficiently when they are thin, with electrons moving in only two dimensions,” says Thomas Szkopek, an associate professor in McGill’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and senior author of the new study. “Nothing gets thinner than a single layer of atoms.”

In 2004, physicists at the University of Manchester in the U.K. first isolated and explored the remarkable properties of graphene — a one-atom-thick layer of carbon. Since then scientists have rushed to to investigate a range of other two-dimensional materials. One of those is black phosphorus, a form of phosphorus that is similar to graphite and can be separated easily into single atomic layers, known as phosphorene.

Phosphorene has sparked growing interest because it overcomes many of the challenges of using graphene in electronics. Unlike graphene, which acts like a metal, black phosphorus is a natural semiconductor: it can be readily switched on and off.

“To lower the operating voltage of transistors, and thereby reduce the heat they generate, we have to get closer and closer to designing the transistor at the atomic level,” Szkopek says. “The toolbox of the future for transistor designers will require a variety of atomic-layered materials: an ideal semiconductor, an ideal metal, and an ideal dielectric. All three components must be optimized for a well designed transistor. Black phosphorus fills the semiconducting-material role.”

The work resulted from a multidisciplinary collaboration among Szkopek’s nanoelectronics research group, the nanoscience lab of McGill Physics Prof. Guillaume Gervais, and the nanostructures research group of Prof. Richard Martel in Université de Montréal’s Department of Chemistry.

To examine how the electrons move in a phosphorus transistor, the researchers observed them under the influence of a magnetic field in experiments performed at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory in Tallahassee, FL, the largest and highest-powered magnet laboratory in the world. This research “provides important insights into the fundamental physics that dictate the behavior of black phosphorus,” says Tim Murphy, DC Field Facility Director at the Florida facility.

“What’s surprising in these results is that the electrons are able to be pulled into a sheet of charge which is two-dimensional, even though they occupy a volume that is several atomic layers in thickness,” Szkopek says. That finding is significant because it could potentially facilitate manufacturing the material — though at this point “no one knows how to manufacture this material on a large scale.”

“There is a great emerging interest around the world in black phosphorus,” Szkopek says. “We are still a long way from seeing atomic layer transistors in a commercial product, but we have now moved one step closer.”

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

Two-dimensional magnetotransport in a black phosphorus naked quantum well by V. Tayari, N. Hemsworth, I. Fakih, A. Favron, E. Gaufrès, G. Gervais, R. Martel & T. Szkopek. Nature Communications 6, Article number: 7702 doi:10.1038/ncomms8702 Published 07 July 2015

This is an open access paper.

The second piece of research into black phosphorus is courtesy of an international collaboration.

A phosporene transistor

A July 9, 2015 Technical University of Munich (TUM) press release (also on EurekAlert) describes the formation of a phosphorene transistor made possible by the introduction of arsenic,

Chemists at the Technische Universität München (TUM) have now developed a semiconducting material in which individual phosphorus atoms are replaced by arsenic. In a collaborative international effort, American colleagues have built the first field-effect transistors from the new material.

For many decades silicon has formed the basis of modern electronics. To date silicon technology could provide ever tinier transistors for smaller and smaller devices. But the size of silicon transistors is reaching its physical limit. Also, consumers would like to have flexible devices, devices that can be incorporated into clothing and the likes. However, silicon is hard and brittle. All this has triggered a race for new materials that might one day replace silicon.

Black arsenic phosphorus might be such a material. Like graphene, which consists of a single layer of carbon atoms, it forms extremely thin layers. The array of possible applications ranges from transistors and sensors to mechanically flexible semiconductor devices. Unlike graphene, whose electronic properties are similar to those of metals, black arsenic phosphorus behaves like a semiconductor.

The press release goes on to provide more detail about the collaboration and the research,

A cooperation between the Technical University of Munich and the University of Regensburg on the German side and the University of Southern California (USC) and Yale University in the United States has now, for the first time, produced a field effect transistor made of black arsenic phosphorus. The compounds were synthesized by Marianne Koepf at the laboratory of the research group for Synthesis and Characterization of Innovative Materials at the TUM. The field effect transistors were built and characterized by a group headed by Professor Zhou and Dr. Liu at the Department of Electrical Engineering at USC.

The new technology developed at TUM allows the synthesis of black arsenic phosphorus without high pressure. This requires less energy and is cheaper. The gap between valence and conduction bands can be precisely controlled by adjusting the arsenic concentration. “This allows us to produce materials with previously unattainable electronic and optical properties in an energy window that was hitherto inaccessible,” says Professor Tom Nilges, head of the research group for Synthesis and Characterization of Innovative Materials.

Detectors for infrared

With an arsenic concentration of 83 percent the material exhibits an extremely small band gap of only 0.15 electron volts, making it predestined for sensors which can detect long wavelength infrared radiation. LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) sensors operate in this wavelength range, for example. They are used, among other things, as distance sensors in automobiles. Another application is the measurement of dust particles and trace gases in environmental monitoring.

A further interesting aspect of these new, two-dimensional semiconductors is their anisotropic electronic and optical behavior. The material exhibits different characteristics along the x- and y-axes in the same plane. To produce graphene like films the material can be peeled off in ultra thin layers. The thinnest films obtained so far are only two atomic layers thick.

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

Black Arsenic–Phosphorus: Layered Anisotropic Infrared Semiconductors with Highly Tunable Compositions and Properties by Bilu Liu, Marianne Köpf, Ahmad N. Abbas, Xiaomu Wang, Qiushi Guo, Yichen Jia, Fengnian Xia, Richard Weihrich, Frederik Bachhuber, Florian Pielnhofer, Han Wang, Rohan Dhall, Stephen B. Cronin, Mingyuan Ge1 Xin Fang, Tom Nilges, and Chongwu Zhou. DOI: 10.1002/adma.201501758 Article first published online: 25 JUN 2015

© 2015 WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

This paper is behind a paywall.

Dexter Johnson, on his Nanoclast blog (on the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers website), adds more information about black phosphorus and its electrical properties in his July 9, 2015 posting about the Germany/US collaboration (Note: Links have been removed),

Black phosphorus has been around for about 100 years, but recently it has been synthesized as a two-dimensional material—dubbed phosphorene in reference to its two-dimensional cousin, graphene. Black phosphorus is quite attractive for electronic applications like field-effect transistors because of its inherent band gap and it is one of the few 2-D materials to be a natively p-type semiconductor.

One final comment, I notice the Germany-US work was published weeks prior to the Canadian research suggesting that the TUM July 9, 2015 press release is an attempt to capitalize on the interest generated by the Canadian research. That’s a smart move.

Nanotechnology research protocols for Environment, Health and Safety Studies in US and a nanomedicine characterization laboratory in the European Union

I have two items relating to nanotechnology and the development of protocols. The first item concerns the launch of a new web portal by the US National Institute of Standards and Technology.

US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)

From a July 1, 2015 news item on Azonano,

As engineered nanomaterials increasingly find their way into commercial products, researchers who study the potential environmental or health impacts of those materials face a growing challenge to accurately measure and characterize them. These challenges affect measurements of basic chemical and physical properties as well as toxicology assessments.

To help nano-EHS (Environment, Health and Safety)researchers navigate the often complex measurement issues, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has launched a new website devoted to NIST-developed (or co-developed) and validated laboratory protocols for nano-EHS studies.

A July 1, 2015 NIST news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, offers more details about the information available through the web portal,

In common lab parlance, a “protocol” is a specific step-by-step procedure used to carry out a measurement or related activity, including all the chemicals and equipment required. Any peer-reviewed journal article reporting an experimental result has a “methods” section where the authors document their measurement protocol, but those descriptions are necessarily brief and condensed, and may lack validation of any sort. By comparison, on NIST’s new Protocols for Nano-EHS website the protocols are extraordinarily detailed. For ease of citation, they’re published individually–each with its own unique digital object identifier (DOI).

The protocols detail not only what you should do, but why and what could go wrong. The specificity is important, according to program director Debra Kaiser, because of the inherent difficulty of making reliable measurements of such small materials. “Often, if you do something seemingly trivial–use a different size pipette, for example–you get a different result. Our goal is to help people get data they can reproduce, data they can trust.”

A typical caution, for example, notes that if you’re using an instrument that measures the size of nanoparticles in a solution by how they scatter light, it’s important also to measure the transmission spectrum of the particles if they’re colored, because if they happen to absorb light strongly at the same frequency as your instrument, the result may be biased.

“These measurements are difficult because of the small size involved,” explains Kaiser. “Very few new instruments have been developed for this. People are adapting existing instruments and methods for the job, but often those instruments are being operated close to their limits and the methods were developed for chemicals or bulk materials and not for nanomaterials.”

“For example, NIST offers a reference material for measuring the size of gold nanoparticles in solution, and we report six different sizes depending on the instrument you use. We do it that way because different instruments sense different aspects of a nanoparticle’s dimensions. An electron microscope is telling you something different than a dynamic light scattering instrument, and the researcher needs to understand that.”

The nano-EHS protocols offered by the NIST site, Kaiser says, could form the basis for consensus-based, formal test methods such as those published by ASTM and ISO.

NIST’s nano-EHS protocol site currently lists 12 different protocols in three categories: sample preparation, physico-chemical measurements and toxicological measurements. More protocols will be added as they are validated and documented. Suggestions for additional protocols are welcome at nanoprotocols@nist.gov.

The next item concerns European nanomedicine.

CEA-LETI and Europe’s first nanomedicine characterization laboratory

A July 1, 2015 news item on Nanotechnology Now describes the partnership which has led to launch of the new laboratory,

CEA-Leti today announced the launch of the European Nano-Characterisation Laboratory (EU-NCL) funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programm[1]e. Its main objective is to reach a level of international excellence in nanomedicine characterisation for medical indications like cancer, diabetes, inflammatory diseases or infections, and make it accessible to all organisations developing candidate nanomedicines prior to their submission to regulatory agencies to get the approval for clinical trials and, later, marketing authorization.

“As reported in the ETPN White Paper[2], there is a lack of infrastructure to support nanotechnology-based innovation in healthcare,” said Patrick Boisseau, head of business development in nanomedicine at CEA-Leti and chairman of the European Technology Platform Nanomedicine (ETPN). “Nanocharacterisation is the first bottleneck encountered by companies developing nanotherapeutics. The EU-NCL project is of most importance for the nanomedicine community, as it will contribute to the competiveness of nanomedicine products and tools and facilitate regulation in Europe.”

EU-NCL is partnered with the sole international reference facility, the Nanotechnology Characterization Lab of the National Cancer Institute in the U.S. (US-NCL)[3], to get faster international harmonization of analytical protocols.

“We are excited to be part of this cooperative arrangement between Europe and the U.S.,” said Scott E. McNeil, director of U.S. NCL. “We hope this collaboration will help standardize regulatory requirements for clinical evaluation and marketing of nanomedicines internationally. This venture holds great promise for using nanotechnologies to overcome cancer and other major diseases around the world.”

A July 2, 2015 EMPA (Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology) news release on EurekAlert provides more detail about the laboratory and the partnerships,

The «European Nanomedicine Characterization Laboratory» (EU-NCL), which was launched on 1 June 2015, has a clear-cut goal: to help bring more nanomedicine candidates into the clinic and on the market, for the benefit of patients and the European pharmaceutical industry. To achieve this, EU-NCL is partnered with the sole international reference facility, the «Nanotechnology Characterization Laboratory» (US-NCL) of the US-National Cancer Institute, to get faster international harmonization of analytical protocols. EU-NCL is also closely connected to national medicine agencies and the European Medicines Agency to continuously adapt its analytical services to requests of regulators. EU-NCL is designed, organized and operated according to the highest EU regulatory and quality standards. «We are excited to be part of this cooperative project between Europe and the U.S.,» says Scott E. McNeil, director of US-NCL. «We hope this collaboration will help standardize regulatory requirements for clinical evaluation and marketing of nanomedicines internationally. This venture holds great promise for using nanotechnologies to overcome cancer and other major diseases around the world.»

Nine partners from eight countries

EU-NCL, which is funded by the EU for a four-year period with nearly 5 million Euros, brings together nine partners from eight countries: CEA-Tech in Leti and Liten, France, the coordinator of the project; the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission in Ispra, Italy; European Research Services GmbH in Münster Germany; Leidos Biomedical Research, Inc. in Frederick, USA; Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland; SINTEF in Oslo, Norway; the University of Liverpool in the UK; Empa, the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology in St. Gallen, Switzerland; Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität (WWU) and Gesellschaft für Bioanalytik, both in Münster, Germany. Together, the partnering institutions will provide a trans-disciplinary testing infrastructure covering a comprehensive set of preclinical characterization assays (physical, chemical, in vitro and in vivo biological testing), which will allow researchers to fully comprehend the biodistribution, metabolism, pharmacokinetics, safety profiles and immunological effects of their medicinal nano-products. The project will also foster the use and deployment of standard operating procedures (SOPs), benchmark materials and quality management for the preclinical characterization of medicinal nano-products. Yet another objective is to promote intersectoral and interdisciplinary communication among key drivers of innovation, especially between developers and regulatory agencies.

The goal: to bring safe and efficient nano-therapeutics faster to the patient

Within EU-NCL, six analytical facilities will offer transnational access to their existing analytical services for public and private developers, and will also develop new or improved analytical assays to keep EU-NCL at the cutting edge of nanomedicine characterization. A complementary set of networking activities will enable EU-NCL to deliver to European academic or industrial scientists the high-quality analytical services they require for accelerating the industrial development of their candidate nanomedicines. The Empa team of Peter Wick at the «Particles-Biology Interactions» lab will be in charge of the quality management of all analytical methods, a key task to guarantee the best possible reproducibility and comparability of the data between the various analytical labs within the consortium. «EU-NCL supports our research activities in developing innovative and safe nanomaterials for healthcare within an international network, which will actively shape future standards in nanomedicine and strengthen Empa as an enabler to facilitate the transfer of novel nanomedicines from bench to bedside», says Wick.

You can find more information about the laboratory on the Horizon 2020 (a European Union science funding programme) project page for the EU-NCL laboratory. For anyone curious about CEA-Leti, it’s a double-layered organization. CEA is France’s Commission on Atomic Energy and Alternative Energy (Commissariat à l’énergie atomique et aux énergies alternatives); you can go here to their French language site (there is an English language clickable option on the page). Leti is one of the CEA’s institutes and is known as either Leti or CEA-Leti. I have no idea what Leti stands for. Here’s the Leti website (this is the English language version).

Japanese researchers note the emergence of the ‘Devil’s staircase’

I wanted to know why it’s called the ‘Devil’s staircase’ and this is what I found. According to Wikipedia there are several of them,

I gather the scientists are referring to the Cantor function (mathematics), Note: Links have been removed,

In mathematics, the Cantor function is an example of a function that is continuous, but not absolutely continuous. It is also referred to as the Cantor ternary function, the Lebesgue function, Lebesgue’s singular function, the Cantor-Vitali function, the Devil’s staircase,[1] the Cantor staircase function,[2] and the Cantor-Lebesgue function.[3]

Here’s a diagram illustrating the Cantor function (from the Wikipedia entry),

CC BY-SA 3.0 File:CantorEscalier.svg Uploaded by Theon Created: January 24, 2009

CC BY-SA 3.0
File:CantorEscalier.svg
Uploaded by Theon
Created: January 24, 2009

As for this latest ‘Devil’s staircase’, a June 17, 2015 news item on Nanowerk announces the research (Note: A link has been removed),

Researchers at the University of Tokyo have revealed a novel magnetic structure named the “Devil’s staircase” in cobalt oxides using soft X-rays (“Observation of a Devil’s Staircase in the Novel Spin-Valve System SrCo6O11“). This is an important result since the researchers succeeded in determining the detailed magnetic structure of a very small single crystal invisible to the human eye.

A June 17, 2015 University of Tokyo press release, which originated the news item on Nanowerk, describes why this research is now possible and the impact it could have,

Recent remarkable progress in resonant soft x-ray diffraction performed in synchrotron facilities has made it possible to determine spin ordering (magnetic structure) in small-volume samples including thin films and nanostructures, and thus is expected to lead not only to advances in materials science but also application to spintronics, a technology which is expected to form the basis of future electronic devices. Cobalt oxide is known as one material that is suitable for spintronics applications, but its magnetic structure was not fully understood.

The research group of Associate Professor Hiroki Wada at the University of Tokyo Institute for Solid State Physics, together with the researchers at Kyoto University and in Germany, performed a resonant soft X-ray diffraction study of cobalt (Co) oxides in the synchrotron facility BESSY II in Germany. They observed all the spin orderings which are theoretically possible and determined how these orderings change with the application of magnetic fields. The plateau-like behavior of magnetic structure as a function of magnetic field is called the “Devil’s staircase,” and is the first such discovery in spin systems in 3D transition metal oxides including cobalt, iron, manganese.

By further resonant soft X-ray diffraction studies, one can expect to find similar “Devil’s staircase” behavior in other materials. By increasing the spatial resolution of microscopic observation of the “Devil’s staircase” may lead to the development of novel types of spintronics materials.

Here’s an example of the ‘cobalt’ Devil’s staircase,

The magnetic structure that gives rise to the Devil's Staircase Magnetization (vertical axis) of cobalt oxide shows plateau like behaviors as a function of the externally-applied magnetic field (horizontal axis). The researchers succeeded in determining the magnetic structures which create such plateaus. Red and blue arrows indicate spin direction. © 2015 Hiroki Wadati.

The magnetic structure that gives rise to the Devil’s Staircase
Magnetization (vertical axis) of cobalt oxide shows plateau like behaviors as a function of the externally-applied magnetic field (horizontal axis). The researchers succeeded in determining the magnetic structures which create such plateaus. Red and blue arrows indicate spin direction.
© 2015 Hiroki Wadati.

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

Observation of a Devil’s Staircase in the Novel Spin-Valve System SrCo6O11 by T. Matsuda, S. Partzsch, T. Tsuyama, E. Schierle, E. Weschke, J. Geck, T. Saito, S. Ishiwata, Y. Tokura, and H. Wadati. Phys. Rev. Lett. 114, 236403 – Published 11 June 2015 (paper: Vol. 114, Iss. 23 — 12 June 2015)  DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevLett.114.236403

This paper is behind a paywall.

Discovering why your teeth aren’t perfectly crack-resistant

This helps make your teeth crack-resistant?

Caption: Illustration shows complex biostructure of dentin: the dental tubuli (yellow hollow cylinders, diameters appr. 1 micrometer) are surrounded by layers of mineralized collagen fibers (brown rods). The tiny mineral nanoparticles are embedded in the mesh of collagen fibers and not visible here. Credit: JB Forien @Charité

Caption: Illustration shows complex biostructure of dentin: the dental tubuli (yellow hollow cylinders, diameters appr. 1 micrometer) are surrounded by layers of mineralized collagen fibers (brown rods). The tiny mineral nanoparticles are embedded in the mesh of collagen fibers and not visible here. Credit: JB Forien @Charité

A June 10, 2015 Helmholtz Zentrum Berlin (HZB) press release (also on EurekAlert) explains how the illustration above relates to the research,

Human teeth have to serve for a lifetime, despite being subjected to huge forces. But the high failure resistance of dentin in teeth is not fully understood. An interdisciplinary team led by scientists of Charite Universitaetsmedizin Berlin has now analyzed the complex structure of dentin. At the synchrotron sources BESSY II at HZB, Berlin, Germany, and the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility ESRF, Grenoble, France, they could reveal that the mineral particles are precompressed.

The internal stress works against crack propagation and increases resistance of the biostructure.

Engineers use internal stresses to strengthen materials for specific technical purposes. Now it seems that evolution has long ‘known’ about this trick, and has put it to use in our natural teeth. Unlike bones, which are made partly of living cells, human teeth are not able to repair damage. Their bulk is made of dentin, a bonelike material consisting of mineral nanoparticles. These mineral nanoparticles are embedded in collagen protein fibres, with which they are tightly connected. In every tooth, such fibers can be found, and they lie in layers, making teeth tough and damage resistant. Still, it was not well understood, how crack propagation in teeth can be stopped.

The press release goes on to describe the new research and the teams which investigated the role of the mineral nanoparticles with regard to compression and cracking,

Now researchers from Charite Julius-Wolff-Institute, Berlin have been working with partners from Materials Engineering Department of Technische Universitaets Berlin, MPI of Colloids and Interfaces, Potsdam and Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, Haifa, to examine these biostructures more closely. They performed Micro-beam in-situ stress experiments in the mySpot BESSY facility of HZB, Berlin, Germany and analyzed the local orientation of the mineral nanoparticles using the nano-imaging facility of the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble, France.

When the tiny collagen fibers shrink, the attached mineral particles become increasingly compressed, the science team found out. “Our group was able to use changes in humidity to demonstrate how stress appears in the mineral in the collagen fibers, Dr. Paul Zaslansky from Julius Wolff-Institute of Charite Berlin explains. “The compressed state helps to prevents cracks from developing and we found that compression takes place in such a way that cracks cannot easily reach the tooth inner parts, which could damage the sensitive pulp. In this manner, compression stress helps to prevent cracks from rushing through the tooth.

The scientists also examined what happens if the tight mineral-protein link is destroyed by heating: In that case, dentin in teeth becomes much weaker. We therefore believe that the balance of stresses between the particles and the protein is important for the extended survival of teeth in the mouth, Charite scientist Jean-Baptiste Forien says. Their results may explain why artificial tooth replacements usually do not work as well as healthy teeth do: they are simply too passive, lacking the mechanisms found in the natural tooth structures, and consequently fillings cannot sustain the stresses in the mouth as well as teeth do. “Our results might inspire the development of tougher ceramic structures for tooth repair or replacement, Zaslansky hopes.

Experiments took place as part of the DFG project “Biomimetic Materials Research: Functionality by Hierarchical Structuring of Materials (SPP1420).

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

Compressive Residual Strains in Mineral Nanoparticles as a Possible Origin of Enhanced Crack Resistance in Human Tooth Dentin by Jean-Baptiste Forien, Claudia Fleck, Peter Cloetens, Georg Duda, Peter Fratzl, Emil Zolotoyabko, and Paul Zaslansky. Nano Lett., 2015, 15 (6), pp 3729–3734 DOI: 10.1021/acs.nanolett.5b00143 Publication Date (Web): May 26, 2015

Copyright © 2015 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Observing photo exposure one nanoscale grain at a time

A June 9, 2015 news item on Nanotechnology Now highlights research into a common phenomenon, photographic exposure,

Photoinduced chemical reactions are responsible for many fundamental processes and technologies, from energy conversion in nature to micro fabrication by photo-lithography. One process that is known from everyday’s life and can be observed by the naked eye, is the exposure of photographic film. At DESY’s [Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron] X-ray light source PETRA III, scientists have now monitored the chemical processes during a photographic exposure at the level of individual nanoscale grains in real-time. The advanced experimental method enables the investigation of a broad variety of chemical and physical processes in materials with millisecond temporal resolution, ranging from phase transitions to crystal growth. The research team lead by Prof. Jianwei (John) Miao from the University of California in Los Angeles and Prof. Tim Salditt from the University of Göttingen report their technique and observations in the journal Nature Materials.

A June 9, 2015 DESY press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail about the research,

The researchers investigated a photographic paper (Kodak linagraph paper Type 2167 or “yellow burn paper”) that is often used to determine the position of the beam at X-ray experiments. “The photographic paper we looked at is not specially designed for X-rays. It works by changing its colour on exposure to light or X-rays,” explains DESY physicist Dr. Michael Sprung, head of the PETRA III beamline P10 where the experiments took place.

The X-rays were not only used to expose the photographic paper, but also to analyse changes of its inner composition at the same time. The paper carries a photosensitive film of a few micrometre thickness, consisting of tiny silver bromide grains dispersed in a gelatine matrix, and with an average size of about 700 nanometres. A nanometre is a millionth of a millimetre. When X-rays impinge onto such a crystalline grain, they are diffracted in a characteristic way, forming a unique pattern on the detector that reveals properties like crystal lattice spacing, chemical composition and orientation. “We could observe individual silver bromide grains within the ‘burn’ paper since the X-ray beam had a size of only 270 by 370 nanometres – smaller than the average grain,” says Salditt, who is a partner of DESY in the construction and operation of the GINIX (Göttingen Instrument for Nano-Imaging with X-Rays) at beamline P10.

The X-ray exposure starts the photolysis from silver bromide to produce silver. An absorbed X-ray photon can create many photolytic silver atoms, which grow and agglomerate at the surface and inside the silver bromide grain. The scientists observed how the silver bromide grains were strained, began to turn in the gelatine matrix and broke up into smaller crystallites as well as the growth of pure silver nano grains. The exceptionally bright beam of PETRA III together with a high-speed detector enabled the ‘filming’ of the process with up to five milliseconds temporal resolution. “We observed, for the first time, grain rotation and lattice deformation during photoinduced chemical reactions,” emphasises Miao. “We were actually surprised how fast some of these single grains rotate,” adds Sprung. “Some spin almost one time every two seconds.”

“As advanced synchrotron light sources are currently under rapid development in the US, Europe and Asia,” the authors anticipate that “in situ X-ray nanodiffraction, which enables to measure atomic resolution diffraction patterns with several millisecond temporal resolution, can be broadly applied to investigate phase transitions, chemical reactions, crystal growth, grain boundary dynamics, lattice expansion, and contraction in materials science, nanoscience, physics, and chemistry.”

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

Grain rotation and lattice deformation during photoinduced chemical reactions revealed by in situ X-ray nanodiffraction by Zhifeng Huang, Matthias Bartels, Rui Xu, Markus Osterhoff, Sebastian Kalbfleisch, Michael Sprung, Akihiro Suzuki, Yukio Takahashi, Thomas N. Blanton, Tim Salditt, & Jianwei Miao. Nature Materials (2015) doi:10.1038/nmat4311 Published online 08 June 2015

This paper is behind a paywall.

Synthesizing spider silk

Most of the research on spider silk and spider webs that’s featured here is usually from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and, more specifically, from professor Markus J. Buehler. This May 28, 2015 news item on ScienceDaily, which heralds the development of synthetic spider silk, is no exception,

After years of research decoding the complex structure and production of spider silk, researchers have now succeeded in producing samples of this exceptionally strong and resilient material in the laboratory. The new development could lead to a variety of biomedical materials — from sutures to scaffolding for organ replacements — made from synthesized silk with properties specifically tuned for their intended uses.

The findings are published this week in the journal Nature Communications by MIT professor of civil and environmental engineering (CEE) Markus Buehler, postdocs Shangchao Lin and Seunghwa Ryu, and others at MIT, Tufts University, Boston University, and in Germany, Italy, and the U.K.

The research, which involved a combination of simulations and experiments, paves the way for “creating new fibers with improved characteristics” beyond those of natural silk, says Buehler, who is also the department head in CEE. The work, he says, should make it possible to design fibers with specific characteristics of strength, elasticity, and toughness.

The new synthetic fibers’ proteins — the basic building blocks of the material — were created by genetically modifying bacteria to make the proteins normally produced by spiders. These proteins were then extruded through microfluidic channels designed to mimic the effect of an organ, called a spinneret, that spiders use to produce natural silk fibers.

A May 28, 2015 MIT news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the work in more detail,

While spider silk has long been recognized as among the strongest known materials, spiders cannot practically be bred to produce harvestable fibers — so this new approach to producing a synthetic, yet spider-like, silk could make such strong and flexible fibers available for biomedical applications. By their nature, spider silks are fully biocompatible and can be used in the body without risk of adverse reactions; they are ultimately simply absorbed by the body.

The researchers’ “spinning” process, in which the constituent proteins dissolved in water are extruded through a tiny opening at a controlled rate, causes the molecules to line up in a way that produces strong fibers. The molecules themselves are a mixture of hydrophobic and hydrophilic compounds, blended so as to naturally align to form fibers much stronger than their constituent parts. “When you spin it, you create very strong bonds in one direction,” Buehler says.

The team found that getting the blend of proteins right was crucial. “We found out that when there was a high proportion of hydrophobic proteins, it would not spin any fibers, it would just make an ugly mass,” says Ryu, who worked on the project as a postdoc at MIT and is now an assistant professor at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology. “We had to find the right mix” in order to produce strong fibers, he says.

The researchers made use of computational modelling to speed up the process of synthesizing proteins for synthetic spider silk, from the news release,

This project represents the first use of simulations to understand silk production at the molecular level. “Simulation is critical,” Buehler explains: Actually synthesizing a protein can take several months; if that protein doesn’t turn out to have exactly the right properties, the process would have to start all over.

Using simulations makes it possible to “scan through a large range of proteins until we see changes in the fiber stiffness,” and then home in on those compounds, says Lin, who worked on the project as a postdoc at MIT and is now an assistant professor at Florida State University.

Controlling the properties directly could ultimately make it possible to create fibers that are even stronger than natural ones, because engineers can choose characteristics for a particular use. For example, while spiders may need elasticity so their webs can capture insects without breaking, those designing fibers for use as surgical sutures would need more strength and less stretchiness. “Silk doesn’t give us that choice,” Buehler says.

The processing of the material can be done at room temperature using water-based solutions, so scaling up manufacturing should be relatively easy, team members say. So far, the fibers they have made in the lab are not as strong as natural spider silk, but now that the basic process has been established, it should be possible to fine-tune the materials and improve its strength, they say.

“Our goal is to improve the strength, elasticity, and toughness of artificially spun fibers by borrowing bright ideas from nature,” Lin says. This study could inspire the development of new synthetic fibers — or any materials requiring enhanced properties, such as in electrical and thermal transport, in a certain direction.

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

Predictive modelling-based design and experiments for synthesis and spinning of bioinspired silk fibres by Shangchao Lin, Seunghwa Ryu, Olena Tokareva, Greta Gronau, Matthew M. Jacobsen, Wenwen Huang, Daniel J. Rizzo, David Li, Cristian Staii, Nicola M. Pugno, Joyce Y. Wong, David L. Kaplan, & Markus J. Buehler. Nature Communications 6, Article number: 6892 doi:10.1038/ncomms7892 Published 28 May 2015

This paper is behind a paywall.

My two most recent (before this one) postings about Buehler’s work are an August 5, 2014 piece about structural failures and a June 4, 2014 piece about spiderwebs and music.

Finally, I recognized one of the authors, Nicola Pugno from Italy. He’s been mentioned here more than once in regard to his biomimicry work which has often been focused on geckos and their adhesive qualities as per this April 3, 2014 post announcing his book ‘An Experimental Study on Adhesive or Anti-Adhesive, Bio-Inspired Experimental Nanomaterials‘ (co-authored with Emiliano Lepore).

McGill University researchers put the squeeze Tomonaga-Luttinger theory in quantum mechanics

McGill University (Montréal, Québec, Canada) researchers testing the Tomonaga-Luttinger theory had international help according to a May 15, 2015 news item on ScienceDaily,

We all know intuitively that normal liquids flow more quickly as the channel containing them tightens. Think of a river flowing through narrow rapids.

But what if a pipe were so amazingly tiny that only a few atoms of superfluid helium could squeeze through its opening at once? According to a longstanding quantum-mechanics model, the superfluid helium would behave differently from a normal liquid: far from speeding up, it would actually slow down.

For more than 70 years, scientists have been studying the flow of helium through ever smaller pipes. But only recently has nanotechnology made it possible to reach the scale required to test the theoretical model, known as the Tomonaga-Luttinger theory (after the scientists who developed it).

Now, a team of McGill University researchers, with collaborators at the University of Vermont and at Leipzig University in Germany, has succeeded in conducting experiments with the smallest channel yet – less than 30 atoms wide. In results published online today in Science Advances, the researchers report that the flow of superfluid helium through this miniature faucet does, indeed, appear to slow down.

A May 15, 2015 University of McGill news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on the theme and notes this is one step on the road to proving the theory,

“Our results suggest that a quantum faucet does show a fundamentally different behaviour,” says McGill physics professor Guillaume Gervais, who led the project. “We don’t have the smoking gun yet. But we think this a great step toward proving experimentally the Tomonaga-Luttinger theory in a real liquid.”

The zone where physics changes

Insights from the research could someday contribute to novel technologies, such as nano-sensors with applications in GPS systems. But for now, Gervais says, the results are significant simply because “we’re pushing the limit of understanding things on the nanoscale. We’re approaching the grey zone where all physics changes.”

Prof. Adrian Del Maestro from the University of Vermont has been employing high-performance computer simulations to understand just how small the faucet has to be before this new physics emerges. “The ability to study a quantum liquid at such diminutive length scales in the laboratory is extremely exciting as it allows us to extend our fundamental understanding of how atoms cooperate to form the superfluid state of matter,” he says. “The superfluid slowdown we observe signals that this cooperation is starting to break down as the width of the pipe narrows to the nanoscale” and edges closer to the exotic one-dimensional limit envisioned in the Tomonaga-Luttinger theory.

Building what is probably the world’s smallest faucet has been no simple task. Gervais hatched the idea during a five-minute conversation over coffee with a world-leading theoretical physicist. That was eight years ago. But getting the nano-plumbing to work took “at least 100 trials – maybe 200,” says Gervais, who is a fellow of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research.

A beam of electrons as drill bit

Using a beam of electrons as a kind of drill bit, the team made holes as small as seven nanometers wide in a piece of silicon nitride, a tough material used in applications such as automotive diesel engines and high-performance ball bearings. By cooling the apparatus to very low temperatures, placing superfluid helium on one side of the pore and applying a vacuum to the other, the researchers were able to observe the flow of the superfluid through the channel. Varying the size of the channel, they found that the maximum speed of the flow slowed as the radius of the pore decreased.

The experiments take advantage of a unique characteristic of superfluids. Unlike ordinary liquids – water or maple syrup, for example – superfluids can flow without any viscosity. As a result, they can course through extremely narrow channels; and once in motion, they don’t need any pressure to keep going. Helium is the only element in nature known to become a superfluid; it does so when cooled to an extremely low temperature.

An inadvertent breakthrough

For years, however, the researchers were frustrated by a technical glitch: the tiny pore in the silicon nitride material kept getting clogged by contaminants. Then one day, while Gervais was away at a conference abroad, a new student in his lab inadvertently deviated from the team’s operating procedure and left a valve open in the apparatus. “It turned out that this open valve kept the hole open,” Gervais says. “It was the key to getting the experiment to work. Scientific breakthroughs don’t always happen by design!”

Prof. Bernd Rosenow, a quantum physicist at Leipzig University’s Institute for Theoretical Physics, also contributed to the study.

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

Critical flow and dissipation in a quasi–one-dimensional superfluid by Pierre-François Duc, Michel Savard, Matei Petrescu, Bernd Rosenow, Adrian Del Maestro, Guillaume Gervais. Science Advances 15 May 2015: Vol. 1 no. 4 e1400222 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1400222

This is an open access paper.

I sing the body cyber: two projects funded by the US National Science Foundation

Points to anyone who recognized the reference to Walt Whitman’s poem, “I sing the body electric,” from his classic collection, Leaves of Grass (1867 edition; h/t Wikipedia entry). I wonder if the cyber physical systems (CPS) work being funded by the US National Science Foundation (NSF) in the US will occasion poetry too.

More practically, a May 15, 2015 news item on Nanowerk, describes two cyber physical systems (CPS) research projects newly funded by the NSF,

Today [May 12, 2015] the National Science Foundation (NSF) announced two, five-year, center-scale awards totaling $8.75 million to advance the state-of-the-art in medical and cyber-physical systems (CPS).

One project will develop “Cyberheart”–a platform for virtual, patient-specific human heart models and associated device therapies that can be used to improve and accelerate medical-device development and testing. The other project will combine teams of microrobots with synthetic cells to perform functions that may one day lead to tissue and organ re-generation.

CPS are engineered systems that are built from, and depend upon, the seamless integration of computation and physical components. Often called the “Internet of Things,” CPS enable capabilities that go beyond the embedded systems of today.

“NSF has been a leader in supporting research in cyber-physical systems, which has provided a foundation for putting the ‘smart’ in health, transportation, energy and infrastructure systems,” said Jim Kurose, head of Computer & Information Science & Engineering at NSF. “We look forward to the results of these two new awards, which paint a new and compelling vision for what’s possible for smart health.”

Cyber-physical systems have the potential to benefit many sectors of our society, including healthcare. While advances in sensors and wearable devices have the capacity to improve aspects of medical care, from disease prevention to emergency response, and synthetic biology and robotics hold the promise of regenerating and maintaining the body in radical new ways, little is known about how advances in CPS can integrate these technologies to improve health outcomes.

These new NSF-funded projects will investigate two very different ways that CPS can be used in the biological and medical realms.

A May 12, 2015 NSF news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the two CPS projects,

Bio-CPS for engineering living cells

A team of leading computer scientists, roboticists and biologists from Boston University, the University of Pennsylvania and MIT have come together to develop a system that combines the capabilities of nano-scale robots with specially designed synthetic organisms. Together, they believe this hybrid “bio-CPS” will be capable of performing heretofore impossible functions, from microscopic assembly to cell sensing within the body.

“We bring together synthetic biology and micron-scale robotics to engineer the emergence of desired behaviors in populations of bacterial and mammalian cells,” said Calin Belta, a professor of mechanical engineering, systems engineering and bioinformatics at Boston University and principal investigator on the project. “This project will impact several application areas ranging from tissue engineering to drug development.”

The project builds on previous research by each team member in diverse disciplines and early proof-of-concept designs of bio-CPS. According to the team, the research is also driven by recent advances in the emerging field of synthetic biology, in particular the ability to rapidly incorporate new capabilities into simple cells. Researchers so far have not been able to control and coordinate the behavior of synthetic cells in isolation, but the introduction of microrobots that can be externally controlled may be transformative.

In this new project, the team will focus on bio-CPS with the ability to sense, transport and work together. As a demonstration of their idea, they will develop teams of synthetic cell/microrobot hybrids capable of constructing a complex, fabric-like surface.

Vijay Kumar (University of Pennsylvania), Ron Weiss (MIT), and Douglas Densmore (BU) are co-investigators of the project.

Medical-CPS and the ‘Cyberheart’

CPS such as wearable sensors and implantable devices are already being used to assess health, improve quality of life, provide cost-effective care and potentially speed up disease diagnosis and prevention. [emphasis mine]

Extending these efforts, researchers from seven leading universities and centers are working together to develop far more realistic cardiac and device models than currently exist. This so-called “Cyberheart” platform can be used to test and validate medical devices faster and at a far lower cost than existing methods. CyberHeart also can be used to design safe, patient-specific device therapies, thereby lowering the risk to the patient.

“Innovative ‘virtual’ design methodologies for implantable cardiac medical devices will speed device development and yield safer, more effective devices and device-based therapies, than is currently possible,” said Scott Smolka, a professor of computer science at Stony Brook University and one of the principal investigators on the award.

The group’s approach combines patient-specific computational models of heart dynamics with advanced mathematical techniques for analyzing how these models interact with medical devices. The analytical techniques can be used to detect potential flaws in device behavior early on during the device-design phase, before animal and human trials begin. They also can be used in a clinical setting to optimize device settings on a patient-by-patient basis before devices are implanted.

“We believe that our coordinated, multi-disciplinary approach, which balances theoretical, experimental and practical concerns, will yield transformational results in medical-device design and foundations of cyber-physical system verification,” Smolka said.

The team will develop virtual device models which can be coupled together with virtual heart models to realize a full virtual development platform that can be subjected to computational analysis and simulation techniques. Moreover, they are working with experimentalists who will study the behavior of virtual and actual devices on animals’ hearts.

Co-investigators on the project include Edmund Clarke (Carnegie Mellon University), Elizabeth Cherry (Rochester Institute of Technology), W. Rance Cleaveland (University of Maryland), Flavio Fenton (Georgia Tech), Rahul Mangharam (University of Pennsylvania), Arnab Ray (Fraunhofer Center for Experimental Software Engineering [Germany]) and James Glimm and Radu Grosu (Stony Brook University). Richard A. Gray of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is another key contributor.

It is fascinating to observe how terminology is shifting from pacemakers and deep brain stimulators as implants to “CPS such as wearable sensors and implantable devices … .” A new category has been created, CPS, which conjoins medical devices with other sensing devices such as wearable fitness monitors found in the consumer market. I imagine it’s an attempt to quell fears about injecting strange things into or adding strange things to your body—microrobots and nanorobots partially derived from synthetic biology research which are “… capable of performing heretofore impossible functions, from microscopic assembly to cell sensing within the body.” They’ve also sneaked in a reference to synthetic biology, an area of research where some concerns have been expressed, from my March 19, 2013 post about a poll and synthetic biology concerns,

In our latest survey, conducted in January 2013, three-fourths of respondents say they have heard little or nothing about synthetic biology, a level consistent with that measured in 2010. While initial impressions about the science are largely undefined, these feelings do not necessarily become more positive as respondents learn more. The public has mixed reactions to specific synthetic biology applications, and almost one-third of respondents favor a ban “on synthetic biology research until we better understand its implications and risks,” while 61 percent think the science should move forward.

I imagine that for scientists, 61% in favour of more research is not particularly comforting given how easily and quickly public opinion can shift.