Tag Archives: Imperial College of London

Paving the way for hardware neural networks?

I’m glad the Imperial College of London (ICL; UK) translated this research into something I can, more or less, understand because the research team’s title for their paper would have left me ‘confuzzled’ .Thank you for this November 20, 2017 ICL press release (also on EurekAlert) by Hayley Dunning,

Researchers have shown how to write any magnetic pattern desired onto nanowires, which could help computers mimic how the brain processes information.

Much current computer hardware, such as hard drives, use magnetic memory devices. These rely on magnetic states – the direction microscopic magnets are pointing – to encode and read information.

Exotic magnetic states – such as a point where three south poles meet – represent complex systems. These may act in a similar way to many complex systems found in nature, such as the way our brains process information.

Computing systems that are designed to process information in similar ways to our brains are known as ‘neural networks’. There are already powerful software-based neural networks – for example one recently beat the human champion at the game ‘Go’ – but their efficiency is limited as they run on conventional computer hardware.

Now, researchers from Imperial College London have devised a method for writing magnetic information in any pattern desired, using a very small magnetic probe called a magnetic force microscope.

With this new writing method, arrays of magnetic nanowires may be able to function as hardware neural networks – potentially more powerful and efficient than software-based approaches.

The team, from the Departments of Physics and Materials at Imperial, demonstrated their system by writing patterns that have never been seen before. They published their results today [November 20, 2017] in Nature Nanotechnology.

Interlocking hexagon patterns with complex magnetisation

‘Hexagonal artificial spin ice ground state’ – a pattern never demonstrated before. Coloured arrows show north or south polarisation

Dr Jack Gartside, first author from the Department of Physics, said: “With this new writing method, we open up research into ‘training’ these magnetic nanowires to solve useful problems. If successful, this will bring hardware neural networks a step closer to reality.”

As well as applications in computing, the method could be used to study fundamental aspects of complex systems, by creating magnetic states that are far from optimal (such as three south poles together) and seeing how the system responds.

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

Realization of ground state in artificial kagome spin ice via topological defect-driven magnetic writing by Jack C. Gartside, Daan M. Arroo, David M. Burn, Victoria L. Bemmer, Andy Moskalenko, Lesley F. Cohen & Will R. Branford. Nature Nanotechnology (2017) doi:10.1038/s41565-017-0002-1 Published online: 20 November 2017

This paper is behind a paywall.

*Odd spacing eliminated and a properly embedded video added on February 6, 2018 at 18:16 hours PT.

Seeing quantum objects with the naked eye

This research is a collaborative effort between the Polytechnique de Montréal (or École polytechnique de Montréal; Canada) and the Imperial College of London (UK) according to a July 14, 2015 news item on Nanotechnology Now,

For the first time, the wavelike behaviour of a room-temperature polariton condensate has been demonstrated in the laboratory on a macroscopic length scale. This significant development in the understanding and manipulation of quantum objects is the outcome of a collaboration between Professor Stéphane Kéna-Cohen of Polytechnique Montréal, Professor Stefan Maier and research associate Konstantinos Daskalakis of Imperial College London. …

A July 14, 2015 Polytechnique de Montréal news release supplies an explanation of this ‘sciencish’ accomplishment,

Quantum objects visible to the naked eye

Quantum mechanics tells us that objects exhibit not only particle-like behaviour, but also wavelike behaviour with a wavelength inversely proportional to the object’s velocity. Normally, this behaviour can only be observed at atomic length scales. There is one important exception, however: with bosons, particles of a particular type that can be combined in large numbers in the same quantum state, it is possible to form macroscopic-scale quantum objects, called Bose-Einstein condensates.

These are at the root of some of quantum physics’ most fascinating phenomena, such as superfluidity and superconductivity. Their scientific importance is so great that their creation, nearly 70 years after their existence was theorized, earned researchers Eric Cornell, Wolfgang Ketterle and Carl Wieman the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2001.

A trap for half-light, half-matter quasi-particles

Placing particles in the same state to obtain a condensate normally requires the temperature to be lowered to a level near absolute zero: conditions achievable only with complex laboratory techniques and expensive cryogenic equipment.

“Unlike work carried out to date, which has mainly used ultracold atomic gases, our research allows comprehensive studies of condensation to be performed in condensed matter systems under ambient conditions” explains Mr. Daskalakis. He notes that this is a key step toward carrying out physics projects that currently remain purely theoretical.

To produce the room-temperature condensate, the team of researchers from Polytechnique and Imperial College first created a device that makes it possible for polaritons – hybrid quasi-particles that are part light and part matter – to exist. The device is composed of a film of organic molecules 100 nanometres thick, confined between two nearly perfect mirrors. The condensate is created by first exciting a sufficient number of polaritons using a laser and then observed via the blue light it emits. Its dimensions can be comparable to that of a human hair, a gigantic size on the quantum scale.

“To date, the majority of polariton experiments continue to use ultra-pure crystalline semiconductors,” says Professor Kéna-Cohen. “Our work demonstrates that it is possible to obtain comparable quantum behaviour using ‘impure’ and disordered materials such as organic molecules. This has the advantage of allowing for much simpler and lower-cost fabrication.”

The size of the condensate is a limiting factor

In addition to directly observing the organic polariton condensate’s wavelike behaviour, the experiment showed researchers that ultimately the condensate size could not exceed approximately 100 micrometres. Beyond this limit, the condensate begins to destroy itself, fragmenting and creating vortices.

Toward future polariton lasers and optical transistors

In a condensate, the polaritons all behave the same way, like photons in a laser. The study of room-temperature condensates paves the way for future technological breakthroughs such as polariton micro-lasers using low-cost organic materials, which are more efficient and require less activation power than  conventional lasers. Powerful transistors entirely powered by light are another possible application.

The research team foresees that the next major challenge in developing such applications will be to obtain a lower particle-condensation threshold so that the external laser used for pumping could be replaced by more practical electrical pumping.

Fertile ground for studying fundamental questions

According to Professor Maier, this research is also creating a platform to facilitate the study of fundamental questions in quantum mechanics. “It is linked to many modern and fascinating aspects of many-body physics, such as Bose-Einstein condensation and superfluidity, topics that also intrigue the general public,” he notes.

Professor Kéna-Cohen concludes: “One fascinating aspect, for example, is the extraordinary transition between the state of non-condensed particles and the formation of a condensate. On a small scale, the physics of this transition resemble an important step in the formation of the Universe after the Big Bang.”

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

Spatial Coherence and Stability in a Disordered Organic Polariton Condensate by K. S. Daskalakis, S. A. Maier, and S. Kéna-Cohen Phys. Rev. Lett. 115 (3), 035301 DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevLett.115.035301 Published 13 July 2015

This article is behind a paywall but there is an earlier open access version  here: http://arxiv.org/pdf/1503.01373v2.

Treating municipal wastewater and dirty industry byproducts with nanocellulose-based filters

Researchers at Sweden’s Luleå University of Technology have created nanocellulose-based filters in collaboration with researchers at the Imperial College of London (ICL) good enough for use as filters according to a Dec. 23, 2014 news item on Nanowerk,

Prototypes of nano-cellulose based filters with high purification capacity towards environmentally hazardous contaminants from industrial effluents e.g. process industries, have been developed by researchers at Luleå University of Technology. The research, conducted in collaboration with Imperial College in the UK has reached a breakthrough with the prototypes and they will now be tested on a few industries in Europe.

“The bio-based filter of nano-cellulose is to be used for the first time in real-life situations and tested within a process industry and in municipal wastewater treatment in Spain. Other industries have also shown interest in this technology and representatives of the mining industry have contacted me and I have even received requests from a large retail chain in the UK,” says Aji Mathew Associate Professor, Division of Materials Science at Luleå University.

A Dec. 22, 2014 Luleå University of Technology press release, which originated the news item, further describes the research,

Researchers have combined a cheap residue from the cellulose industry, with functional nano-cellulose to prepare adsorbent sheets with high filtration capacity. The sheets have since been constructed to different prototypes, called cartridges, to be tested. They have high capacity and can filter out heavy metal ions from industrial waters, dyes residues from the printing industry and nitrates from municipal water. Next year, larger sheets with a layer of nano-cellulose can be produced and formed into cartridges, with higher capacity.

– Each such membrane can be tailored to have different removal capability depending on the kind of pollutant, viz., copper, iron, silver, dyes, nitrates and the like, she says.

Behind the research, which is funded mainly by the EU, is a consortium of research institutes, universities, small businesses and process industries. It is coordinated by Luleå University led by Aji Mathew. She thinks that the next step is to seek more money from the EU to scale up this technology to industrial level.

– Alfa Laval is very interested in this and in the beginning of 2015, I go in with a second application to the EU framework program Horizon 2020 with goals for full-scale demonstrations of this technology, she says.

Two of Aji Mathews graduate student Peng Liu and Zoheb Karim is also deeply involved in research on nano-filters.

– I focus on how these membranes can filter out heavy metals by measuring different materials such as nanocrystals and nano-fibers to determine their capacity to absorb and my colleague focuses on how to produce membranes, says Peng Liu PhD student in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at Luleå University of Technology.

I have been following the nanocellulose work at Luleå University of Technology for a few years now. The first piece was a Feb. 15, 2012 post titled, The Swedes, sludge, and nanocellulose fibres, and the next was a Sept. 19, 2013 post titled, Nanocellulose and forest residues at Luleå University of Technology (Sweden). It’s nice to mark the progress over time although I am curious as to the source for the nanocellulose, trees, carrots, bananas?

The beauty of silence in the practice of science

Most writers need silence at some point in their process and I feel strongly that’s true of anyone involved in creative endeavours of any kind including science. As well, it may seem contradictory to some but one needs to be both open (communicative) and closed (silent).

These days in the field of science there’s a lot of pressure to be open and communicative at all times according to Felicity Mellor’s [Senior Lecturer in Science Communication at Imperial College London] Jan. 15, 2014 blog posting for the Guardian and she feels it’s time to redress the balance (Note: Links have been removed),

Round the back of the British Library in London, a new building is taking shape. Due to open in 2015, the Crick Institute is set to become one of the largest research centres for biomedical science in Europe, housing over 1200 scientists.

The aim is to foster creative and imaginative research through interdisciplinary collaboration and the emphasis on collaboration pervades every aspect of the enterprise, from its joint foundation by six major institutions through to the very fabric of the building itself.

In stark contrast to the hunkered-down solidity of the British Library next door, with its pin-drop silences within, the glass walls and open-plan labs of the Crick Institute are intended to create “an atmosphere that maximises openness and permeability”. In place of the studious silences of the library, there will be the noisy cacophony of multidisciplinary exchanges.

Collaboration is clearly a key component of modern science and the Crick Institute is not alone in prioritising cross-disciplinary interaction. The rhetoric of openness is also widespread, with calls for public engagement and open data further extending the demands on scientists’ communications.

… Last year, Victoria Druce, then a student on the MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College, interviewed some of the scientists due to move into the Crick and found that they were already getting twitchy about sharing equipment and spoke territorially about their labs.

The unease is about more than territoriality (from the blog posting),

Researchers may quickly find ways to carve up the multidisciplinary spaces of the Crick Institute. But will they ever be able to shut themselves off from all that openness? Where, in these spaces of constant chatter, are scientists supposed to find a place to think?

Historically, the pursuit of knowledge was characterised as an activity conducted in, and requiring, silence, symbolically located in solitary spaces – whether the garret of the writer or the study of the intellectual. Newton was famously reluctant to engage with others and his theory of gravity came to him whilst sequestered in Lincolnshire, remote from the hubbub of London. Darwin, too, withdrew to Down House and held off publishing for as long as he could.

Mellor acknowledges that Darwin and Newton did not live in complete seclusion as there were neighbours, family members, and servants about during their ‘solitary’ sojourns but they still were able to enjoy some solitude where it seems the scientists at the Crick Institute will not (from the blog posting),

… when scientists recount moments of creativity, they frequently allude to periods of solitude and silence. If the aim of research centres like the Crick Institute is to foster creativity, then perhaps silence and withdrawal need to be catered for as well as collaboration and communication.

In response to this perceived need, Mellor and her colleague, Stephen Webster, organized a series of conferences titled, The silences of science, from the conferences’ homepage,

Constructive pauses and strategic delays in the practice and communication of science

The Silences of Science is an AHRC-funded reearch network examining different aspects of the paradox that science depends both on prolixity and on reticence. It seeks to interrogate the assumption that open and efficient channels of communication are always of greatest benefit to science and to society. It aims to remind the research community of the creative importance of silence, of interruptions in communication, of isolation and of ‘stuckness’.

Through a series of three workshops and conferences, the research network will bring together a range of scholars – from literary studies, anthropology, legal studies, religious studies, as well as from the history and philosophy of science and science communication studies – to draw on insights from their disciplines in order to examine the role of silence within the sciences.

Workshop/conference series: 

Conceptualising Silence: 2nd-3rd July 2013, Wellcome Trust. Programme here.

Silence in the History and Communication of Science: 17th December 2013, Imperial College London. (Further details and recordings of talks can be found here.)

The Role of Silence in Scientific Practice: Spring 2014, Imperial College London.

The most recent of the conferences features, as noted previously, audio recordings of some of the talks (from the Silence in the History and Communication of Science webpage),

Silence is often construed negatively, as a lack, an absence. Yet silences carry meaning. They can be strategic and directed at particular audiences; they can be fiercely contested or completely overlooked. Silence is not only oppressive but also generative, playing a key role in creative and intellectual processes. Conversely, speech, whilst seeming to facilitate open communication, can serve to mask important silences or can replace the quietude necessary for insightful thought with thoughtless babble.

Despite a currently dominant rhetoric that assumes that openness in science is an inherent good, science – and its communication – depends as much on discontinuities, on barriers and lacunae, as it does on the free flow of information. …

Brian Rappert (University of Exeter). The sounds of silencing.
Kees-Jan Schilt (University of Sussex), “Tired with this subject…”: Isaac Newton on publishing and the ideal natural philosopher.
Nick Verouden (Delft University of Technology), Silences as strategic communication in multi-disciplinary collaborations within the university and beyond.
Paul Merchant (National Life Stories, The British Library), “He didn’t go round the conference circuit talking about it”: oral histories of Joseph Farman and the ozone hole.
Emma Weitkamp (University of the West of England), Offering anonymity: journalists, PR and funders.
Carolyn Cobbold (University of Cambridge), The silent introduction of synthetic dyestuffs into food in the 19th century
Oliver Marsh (UCL), Lurking nine to five: ‘non-participants’ in online science communication.
Ann Grand (University of the West of England), Having it all: quality and quantity in open science.
Camilla Mørk Røstvik (University of Manchester), The silence of Rosalind Franklin’s Photograph 51
Elizabeth Hind, Reconstructing ancient thought: the case of Egyptian mathematics
Tim Boon (Science Museum) ‘The Silence of the Labs’: on mute machines and the communication of science
Alice White (University of Kent), Silence and selection: the “trick cyclist” at the War Office Selection Boards

Enjoy! One final note, Tim Boon’s ‘Silence of the Labs’ is not to be confused with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) Fifth Estate telecast titled Silence of the Labs (mentioned in my Jan. 6, 2014 posting),which focused on opposition to Canadian government initiatives which have forced journalists to send queries for interviews and interview questions to communications officers rather than directly to the scientists and such other measures.

Putting a new spin on it: Whirling Dervishes and physics and ballet dancers and neuroscience

Many years ago I was dragged to a movie about J. Krishnamurti (a philosopher and spiritual teacher; there’s more in this Wikipedia essay) which, for some reason, featured Whirling Dervishes amongst many other topics. Watching those dervishes was hypnotic and I now find out it was also an experience in physics, according to a Nov. 26, 2013 news item on ScienceDaily,

A force that intricately links the rotation of the Earth with the direction of weather patterns in the atmosphere has been shown to play a crucial role in the creation of the hypnotic patterns created by the skirts of the Whirling Dervishes.

This is according to an international group of researchers who have demonstrated how the Coriolis force is essential for creating the archetypal, and sometimes counterintuitive, patterns that form on the surface of the Whirling Dervishes skirts by creating a set of very simple equations which govern how fixed or free-flowing cone-shaped structures behave when rotating.

The Nov. 26, 2013 Institute of Physics (IOP) news release on EurekAlert (also on the IOP website but dated Nov. 27, 2013), which originated the news item, gives an explanation of Whirling Dervishes and describes the research further,

The Whirling Dervishes, who have become a popular tourist attraction in Turkey, are a religious movement who commemorate the 13th-century Persian poet, Rumi, by spinning on the spot and creating mesmerising patterns with their long skirts. A YouTube video of the Whirling Dervishes in action can be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L_Cf-ZxDfZA.

Co-author of the study James Hanna, from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, said: “The dancers don’t do much but spin around at a fixed speed, but their skirts show these very striking, long-lived patterns with sharp cusp-like features which seem rather counterintuitive.”

Hanna, along with Jemal Guven at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and Martin Michael Müller at Université de Lorraine, found that it was the presence of a Coriolis force that was essential in the formation of the different patterns.

The Coriolis effect accounts for the deflection of objects on a rotating surface and is most commonly encountered when looking at the Earth’s rotations and its effect on the atmosphere around it. The rotation of the Earth creates the Coriolis force which causes winds to be deflected clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere and anti-clockwise in the Southern Hemisphere – it is this effect which is responsible for the rotation of cyclones.

“Because the sheet is conically symmetric, material can flow along its surface without stretching or deforming. You can think of the rotating Earth, for example, with the air of the atmosphere free to flow around it.

“The flow of a sheet of material is much more restrictive than the flow of the atmosphere, but nonetheless it results in Coriolis forces. What we found was that this flow, and the associated Coriolis forces, plays a crucial role in forming the dervish-like patterns,” Hanna continued.

By providing a basic mathematical description of the spinning skirts of the Dervishes, the researchers hope their future research will discern how different patterns are selected, how stable these patterns are and if gravity or any other effects make a qualitative difference.

The news release notes,

The equations, which have been published today, 27 November,[2013], in the Institute of Physics and German Physical Society’s New Journal of Physics, were able to reproduce the sharp peaks and gentle troughs that appear along the flowing surface of the Dervishes’ skirts and showed a significant resemblance to real-life images.

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

Whirling skirts and rotating cones by Jemal Guven, J A Hanna, and Martin Michael Müller. New Journal of Physics Volume 15 November 2013 doi:10.1088/1367-2630/15/11/113055  Published 26 November 2013

© IOP Publishing and Deutsche Physikalische Gesellschaft

This paper is open access.

While the Whirling Dervishes and the fabric in their clothing provide insights into aspects of physics, ballet dancers are providing valuable information to neuroscientists and geriatric specialists with pirouettes, according to a Sept. 26, 2013 news item on ScienceDaily,

Scientists have discovered differences in the brain structure of ballet dancers that may help them avoid feeling dizzy when they perform pirouettes.

The research suggests that years of training can enable dancers to suppress signals from the balance organs in the inner ear.

The findings, published in the journal Cerebral Cortex, could help to improve treatment for patients with chronic dizziness. Around one in four people experience this condition at some time in their lives.

The Imperial College of London (ICL) Sept. 26, 2013 news release on EurekAlert (also on the ICL website but dated Sept. 27, 2013), which originated the news item, describes dizziness, this research, and ballet dancers’ unique brains in more detail,

Normally, the feeling of dizziness stems from the vestibular organs in the inner ear. These fluid-filled chambers sense rotation of the head through tiny hairs that sense the fluid moving. After turning around rapidly, the fluid continues to move, which can make you feel like you’re still spinning.

Ballet dancers can perform multiple pirouettes with little or no feeling of dizziness. The findings show that this feat isn’t just down to spotting, a technique dancers use that involves rapidly moving the head to fix their gaze on the same spot as much as possible.

Researchers at Imperial College London recruited 29 female ballet dancers and, as a comparison group, 20 female rowers whose age and fitness levels matched the dancers’.

The volunteers were spun around in a chair in a dark room. They were asked to turn a handle in time with how quickly they felt like they were still spinning after they had stopped. The researchers also measured eye reflexes triggered by input from the vestibular organs. Later, they examined the participants’ brain structure with MRI scans.

In dancers, both the eye reflexes and their perception of spinning lasted a shorter time than in the rowers.

Dr Barry Seemungal, from the Department of Medicine at Imperial, said: “Dizziness, which is the feeling that we are moving when in fact we are still, is a common problem. I see a lot of patients who have suffered from dizziness for a long time. Ballet dancers seem to be able to train themselves not to get dizzy, so we wondered whether we could use the same principles to help our patients.”

The brain scans revealed differences between the groups in two parts of the brain: an area in the cerebellum where sensory input from the vestibular organs is processed and in the cerebral cortex, which is responsible for the perception of dizziness.

The area in the cerebellum was smaller in dancers. Dr Seemungal thinks this is because dancers would be better off not using their vestibular systems, relying instead on highly co-ordinated pre-programmed movements.

“It’s not useful for a ballet dancer to feel dizzy or off balance. Their brains adapt over years of training to suppress that input. Consequently, the signal going to the brain areas responsible for perception of dizziness in the cerebral cortex is reduced, making dancers resistant to feeling dizzy. If we can target that same brain area or monitor it in patients with chronic dizziness, we can begin to understand how to treat them better.”

Another finding in the study may be important for how chronic dizzy patients are tested in the clinic. In the control group, the perception of spinning closely matched the eye reflexes triggered by vestibular signals, but in dancers, the two were uncoupled.

“This shows that the sensation of spinning is separate from the reflexes that make your eyes move back and forth,” Dr Seemungal said. “In many clinics, it’s common to only measure the reflexes, meaning that when these tests come back normal the patient is told that there is nothing wrong. But that’s only half the story. You need to look at tests that assess both reflex and sensation.”

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

The Neuroanatomical Correlates of Training-Related Perceptuo-Reflex Uncoupling in Dancers by Yuliya Nigmatullina, Peter J. Hellyer, Parashkev Nachev, David J. Sharp, and Barry M. Seemungal. Cereb. Cortex (2013) doi: 10.1093/cercor/bht266 First published online: September 26, 2013

Delightfully, this article too is open access.

I love these kinds of stories where two very different branches of science find information of interest in something as ordinary as spinning around.

Courtesy: Imperial College of London (downloaded from: http://www3.imperial.ac.uk/newsandeventspggrp/imperialcollege/newssummary/news_26-9-2013-17-43-4]

Courtesy: Imperial College of London (downloaded from: http://www3.imperial.ac.uk/newsandeventspggrp/imperialcollege/newssummary/news_26-9-2013-17-43-4]

Here are some Whirling Dervishes,

Istanbul - Monestir Mevlevi - Dervixos dansaires Credit: Josep Renalias [downloaded from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Istanbul_-_Monestir_Mevlevi_-_Dervixos_dansaires.JPG]

Istanbul – Monestir Mevlevi – Dervixos dansaires Credit: Josep Renalias [downloaded from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Istanbul_-_Monestir_Mevlevi_-_Dervixos_dansaires.JPG]

ETA Nov. 28, 2013: I was most diverted by the Nov. 27, 2013 Virginia Tech news release (also on EurekAlert) which describes how two physicists and an engineer came to study Whirling Dervishes,

James Hanna likes to have fun with his engineering views of physics.

So when he and his colleague Jemal Guven visited their friend Martin Michael Müller in France on a rainy, dreary day, the three intellects decided to stay in. Guven, absent-mindedly switching between channels on the television, stumbled upon a documentary on whirling dervishes, best described as a Sufi religious order, who commemorate the teachings of 13th century Persian mystic and poet Rumi through spinning at a fixed speed in their floor length skirts.

“Their skirts showed these very striking, long-lived patterns,” Hanna, the engineer, recalled.

The film caused physicists Guven and Müller to think about structures with conical symmetry, or those shapes that can be defined as a series of straight lines emanating from a single point. By contrast, Hanna, the engineer with a physicist’s background, thought about rotating flexible structures, namely strings or sheets.

Pop and rock music lead to better solar cells

A Nov. 6, 2013 news item on Nanowerk reveals that scientists at the Imperial College of London (UK) and Queen Mary University of London (UK),

Playing pop and rock music improves the performance of solar cells, according to new research from scientists at Queen Mary University of London and Imperial College London.

The high frequencies and pitch found in pop and rock music cause vibrations that enhanced energy generation in solar cells containing a cluster of ‘nanorods’, leading to a 40 per cent increase in efficiency of the solar cells.

The study has implications for improving energy generation from sunlight, particularly for the development of new, lower cost, printed solar cells.

The Nov. 6, 2013 Imperial College of London (ICL) news release, which originated the news item, gives more details about the research,

The researchers grew billions of tiny rods (nanorods) made from zinc oxide, then covered them with an active polymer to form a device that converts sunlight into electricity.

Using the special properties of the zinc oxide material, the team was able to show that sound levels as low as 75 decibels (equivalent to a typical roadside noise or a printer in an office) could significantly improve the solar cell performance.

“After investigating systems for converting vibrations into electricity this is a really exciting development that shows a similar set of physical properties can also enhance the performance of a photovoltaic,” said Dr Steve Dunn, Reader in Nanoscale Materials from Queen Mary’s School of Engineering and Materials Science.

Scientists had previously shown that applying pressure or strain to zinc oxide materials could result in voltage outputs, known as the piezoelectric effect. However, the effect of these piezoelectric voltages on solar cell efficiency had not received significant attention before.

“We thought the soundwaves, which produce random fluctuations, would cancel each other out and so didn’t expect to see any significant overall effect on the power output,” said James Durrant, Professor of Photochemistry at Imperial College London, who co-led the study.

“The key for us was that not only that the random fluctuations from the sound didn’t cancel each other out, but also that some frequencies of sound seemed really to amplify the solar cell output – so that the increase in power was a remarkably big effect considering how little sound energy we put in.”

“We tried playing music instead of dull flat sounds, as this helped us explore the effect of different pitches. The biggest difference we found was when we played pop music rather than classical, which we now realise is because our acoustic solar cells respond best to the higher pitched sounds present in pop music,” he concluded.

The discovery could be used to power devices that are exposed to acoustic vibrations, such as air conditioning units or within cars and other vehicles.

This is not the first time that music has been shown to affect properties at the nanoscale. A March 12, 2008 article by Anna Salleh for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation featured a researcher who tested nanowire growth by playing music (Note: Links have been removed),

Silicon nanowires grow more densely when blasted with Deep Purple than any other music tested, says an Australian researcher.

But the exact potential of music in growing nanowires remains a little hazy.

David Parlevliet, a PhD student at Murdoch University in Perth, presented his findings at a recent Australian Research Council Nanotechnology Network symposium in Melbourne.

Parlevliet is testing nanowires for their ability to absorb sunlight in the hope of developing solar cells from them.

I’ve taken a look at the references cited by researchers in their paper and there is nothing from Parleviet listed, so, this seems to be one of those cases where more than one scientist is thinking along the similar lines, i.e., that sound might affect nanoscale structures in such a way as to improve solar cell efficiency.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the ICL/University of Queen Mary research paper,

Acoustic Enhancement of Polymer/ZnO Nanorod Photovoltaic Device Performance by Safa Shoaee, Joe Briscoe, James R. Durrant, Steve Dunn. Article first published online: 6 NOV 2013 DOI: 10.1002/adma.201303304
© 2013 WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

This paper is behind a paywall.

The brain and poetry; congratulations to Alice Munro on her 2013 Nobel prize

There’s an intriguing piece of research from the University of Exeter (UK) about poetry and the brain. From an Oct. 9, 2013 University of Exeter news release (also on EurekAlert),

New brain imaging technology is helping researchers to bridge the gap between art and science by mapping the different ways in which the brain responds to poetry and prose.

Scientists at the University of Exeter used state-of-the-art functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology, which allows them to visualise which parts of the brain are activated to process various activities. No one had previously looked specifically at the differing responses in the brain to poetry and prose.

In research published in the Journal of Consciousness Studies, the team found activity in a “reading network” of brain areas which was activated in response to any written material. But they also found that more emotionally charged writing aroused several of the regions in the brain which respond to music. These areas, predominantly on the right side of the brain, had previously been shown as to give rise to the “shivers down the spine” caused by an emotional reaction to music. .

When volunteers read one of their favourite passages of poetry, the team found that areas of the brain associated with memory were stimulated more strongly than ‘reading areas’, indicating that reading a favourite passage is a kind of recollection.

In a specific comparison between poetry and prose, the team found evidence that poetry activates brain areas, such as the posterior cingulate cortex and medial temporal lobes, which have been linked to introspection.

I did find the Journal of Consciousness Studies in two places (here [current issues] and here [archived issues]) but can’t find the article in my admittedly speedy searches on the website and via Google. Unfortunately the university news release did not include a citation (as so many of them now do); presumably the research will be published soon.

I’d like to point out a couple of things about the research, the sample was small (13) and not randomized (faculty and students from the English department). From the news release,

Professor Adam Zeman, a cognitive neurologist from the University of Exeter Medical School, worked with colleagues across Psychology and English to carry out the study on 13 volunteers, all faculty members and senior graduate students in English. Their brain activity was scanned and compared when reading literal prose such as an extract from a heating installation manual, evocative passages from novels, easy and difficult sonnets, as well as their favourite poetry.

Professor Zeman said: “Some people say it is impossible to reconcile science and art, but new brain imaging technology means we are now seeing a growing body of evidence about how the brain responds to the experience of art. This was a preliminary study, but it is all part of work that is helping us to make psychological, biological, anatomical sense of art.”

Arguably, people who’ve spent significant chunks of their lives studying and reading poetry and prose might have developed capacities the rest of us have not. For a case in point, there’s a Sept. 26, 2013 news item on ScienceDaily about research on ballet dancers’ brains and their learned ability to suppress dizziness,

The research suggests that years of training can enable dancers to suppress signals from the balance organs in the inner ear.

Normally, the feeling of dizziness stems from the vestibular organs in the inner ear. These fluid-filled chambers sense rotation of the head through tiny hairs that sense the fluid moving. After turning around rapidly, the fluid continues to move, which can make you feel like you’re still spinning.

Ballet dancers can perform multiple pirouettes with little or no feeling of dizziness. The findings show that this feat isn’t just down to spotting, a technique dancers use that involves rapidly moving the head to fix their gaze on the same spot as much as possible.

Researchers at Imperial College London recruited 29 female ballet dancers and, as a comparison group, 20 female rowers whose age and fitness levels matched the dancers’.

The volunteers were spun around in a chair in a dark room. They were asked to turn a handle in time with how quickly they felt like they were still spinning after they had stopped. The researchers also measured eye reflexes triggered by input from the vestibular organs. Later, they examined the participants’ brain structure with MRI scans.

In dancers, both the eye reflexes and their perception of spinning lasted a shorter time than in the rowers.

Yes, they too have a small sample. Happily, you can find a citation and a link to the research at the end of the ScienceDaily news item.

ETA Oct. 10, 2013 at 1:10 pm PDT: The ballet dancer research was not randomized but  that’s understandable as researchers were trying to discover why these dancers don’t experience dizziness. It should be noted the researchers did test the ballet dancers against a control group. By contrast, the researchers at the University of Exeter seemed to be generalizing results from a specialized sample to a larger population.

Alice Munro news

It was announced today (Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013) that Canada’s Alice Munro has been awarded the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature. Here’s more from an Oct. 10, 2013 news item on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) news website,

Alice Munro wins the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature, becoming the first Canadian woman to take the award since its launch in 1901.

Munro, 82, only the 13th woman given the award, was lauded by the Swedish Academy during the Nobel announcement in Stockholm as the “master of the contemporary short story.”

“We’re not saying just that she can say a lot in just 20 pages — more than an average novel writer can — but also that she can cover ground. She can have a single short story that covers decades, and it works,” said Peter Englund, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy.

Reached in British Columbia by CBC News on Thursday morning, Munro said she always viewed her chances of winning the Nobel as “one of those pipe dreams” that “might happen, but it probably wouldn’t.”

Congratulations Ms. Munro! For the curious, there’s a lot more about Alice Munro and about her work in the CBC news item.

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.

Modestly viral science communication inspires

Students in the science communication masters programme at the Imperial College of London have created a video (Science Nation Army) that has gone modestly viral. From the Feb. 23, 2012 posting by Anna Perman on the Guardian Science blogs,

This week, a video made by myself and three friends from the science communications masters course at Imperial College went viral. Not “Fenton the dog” viral, but trending on YouTube (316,000 hits and counting), a spot on CBS News blog, in the Sun newspaper and a teeny-tiny snippet in the Guardian’s own G2 (too tiny even for a link). The video shows us recreating Seven Nation Army by the White Stripes, using as our instruments the tools lying around in a lab at Imperial, and some “creative” editing techniques.

We did this to communicate science. And it seems to have worked.

Here’s the video,

It is part of a larger project, a multimedia blog developed by these students, Inside Knowledge: The Student Blog for the Public Library of Science (PLoS) blog network. More from Perman about the project,

A year ago, the four of us [Anna Perman, Ben Good, Lizzie Crouch, and David Robertson] started working with the research group at Imperial’s Blast lab (now part of the Royal British Legion Centre for Blast Injury Studies) to make a multimedia blog for the PLoS blog network about their work. It wasn’t an easy journey. The lab includes military personnel, has links to the ministry of defence and works with human tissue, so getting permission to film and write about their research was no mean feat.

In our film we tried to convey the entire experience of science, from the tedium of sitting with a lab book, to the excitement of their explosive experiments.

We also wanted to get people to think about the lab environment not as somewhere scary and alien, but somewhere accessible, and most importantly, somewhere fun to work.

This particular video was to show the variety of people who must work harmoniously to conduct a piece of scientific research. Just like a band in which a group with different talents create something more than the sum of its parts, a research group like Blast contains a diversity of doctors, mechanical engineers and biophysicists.

There are two groups working on The Student Blog, the group from the UK’s Imperial College of London (Inside Knowledge) and a second group from Stanford University in the US called Science, Upstream (Jamie Hansen and Julia James). I find the project a little confusing as I don’t see any postings after Sept. 2011 for Inside Knowledge and Science, Upstream, which seems to have a separate space on the PLoS website, doesn’t feature any postings after April 2011.

Still, I like the idea of the video and of communicating science in as many ways and in as many venues as possible. Oh, and I really enjoyed the Science Nation Army.

Are we creating a Star Trek world? T-rays and tricorders

There’s been quite a flutter online (even the Huffington Post has published a piece) about ‘Star Trek-hand-held medical scanners’ becoming possible due to some recent work in the area of T-rays. From the Jan. 20, 2012 news item on Nanowerk,

Scientists who have developed a new way to create a type of radiation known as Terahertz (THz) or T-rays – the technology behind full-body security scanners – say their new, stronger and more efficient continuous wave T-rays could be used to make better medical scanning gadgets and may one day lead to innovations similar to the “tricorder” scanner used in Star Trek.

In a study published recently in Nature Photonics (“Greatly enhanced continuous-wave terahertz emission by nano-electrodes in a photoconductive photomixer” [behind a paywall]), researchers from the Institute of Materials Research and Engineering (IMRE), a research institute of the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) in Singapore and Imperial College London in the UK have made T-rays into a much stronger directional beam than was previously thought possible and have efficiently produced T-rays at room-temperature conditions. This breakthrough allows future T-ray systems to be smaller, more portable, easier to operate, and much cheaper.

For anyone who’s not familiar with ‘Star Trek world’ and tricorders, here’s a brief description from a Wikipedia essay about tricorders,

In the fictional Star Trek universe, a tricorder is a multifunction handheld device used for sensor scanning, data analysis, and recording data.

David Freeman in his Jan. 21, 2012 article for the Huffington Post about the research puts it this way,

Trekkies, take heart. A scientific breakthrough involving a form of infrared radiation known as terahertz (THz) waves could lead to handheld medical scanners reminiscent of the “tricorder” featured on the original Star Trek television series.

What’s the breakthrough? Using nanotechnology, physicists in London and Singapore found a way to make a beam of the”T-rays”–which are now used in full-body airport security scanners–stronger and more directional.

Here’s how the improved T-ray technology works (from the Jan. 20, 2012 news item on Nanowerk),

In the new technique, the researchers demonstrated that it is possible to produce a strong beam of T-rays by shining light of differing wavelengths on a pair of electrodes – two pointed strips of metal separated by a 100 nanometre gap on top of a semiconductor wafer. The unique tip-to-tip nano-sized gap electrode structure greatly enhances the THz field and acts like a nano-antenna that amplifies the THz wave generated. The waves are produced by an interaction between the electromagnetic waves of the light pulses and a powerful current passing between the semiconductor electrodes from the carriers generated in the underlying semiconductor. The scientists are able to tune the wavelength of the T-rays to create a beam that is useable in the scanning technology.

Lead author Dr Jing Hua Teng, from A*STAR’s IMRE, said: “The secret behind the innovation lies in the new nano-antenna that we had developed and integrated into the semiconductor chip.” ….

Research co-author Stefan Maier, a Visiting Scientist at A*STAR’s IMRE and Professor in the Department of Physics at Imperial College London, said: “T-rays promise to revolutionise medical scanning to make it faster and more convenient, potentially relieving patients from the inconvenience of complicated diagnostic procedures and the stress of waiting for accurate results. Thanks to modern nanotechnology and nanofabrication, we have made a real breakthrough in the generation of T-rays that takes us a step closer to these new scanning devices. …”

It’s another story about handheld (or point-of-care) diagnostic devices and I have posted on this topic previously:

  • Jan. 4, 2012 about work in Alberta;
  •  Dec. 22, 2011 on grants to scientists in the US and Canada working on these devices;
  •  Aug. 4, 2011 about a diagnostic device the size of a credit card;
  •  Mar. 1, 2011 about nanoLAB from Stanford University (my last sentence in that posting “It’s not quite Star Trek yet but we’re getting there.”); and,
  •  Feb. 5, 2011 about the Argento and PROOF initiatives.

I see I had four articles last year and this year (one month old), I already have two articles on these devices. It reflects my own interest, as well as, the amount work being done in this area.