Tag Archives: Japan

Nano-neurons from a French-Japanese-US research team

This news about nano-neurons comes from a Nov. 8, 2017 news item on defenceweb.co.za,

Researchers from the Joint Physics Unit CNRS/Thales, the Nanosciences and Nanotechnologies Centre (CNRS/Université Paris Sud), in collaboration with American and Japanese researchers, have developed the world’s first artificial nano-neuron with the ability to recognise numbers spoken by different individuals. Just like the recent development of electronic synapses described in a Nature article, this electronic nano-neuron is a breakthrough in artificial intelligence and its potential applications.

A Sept. 19, 2017 Thales press release, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

The latest artificial intelligence algorithms are able to recognise visual and vocal cues with high levels of performance. But running these programs on conventional computers uses 10,000 times more energy than the human brain. To reduce electricity consumption, a new type of computer is needed. It is inspired by the human brain and comprises vast numbers of miniaturised neurons and synapses. Until now, however, it had not been possible to produce a stable enough artificial nano-neuron which would process the information reliably.

Today [Sept. 19, 2017 or July 27, 2017 when the paper was published in Nature?]], for the first time, researchers have developed a nano-neuron with the ability to recognise numbers spoken by different individuals with 99.6% accuracy. This breakthrough relied on the use of an exceptionally stable magnetic oscillator. Each gyration of this nano-compass generates an electrical output, which effectively imitates the electrical impulses produced by biological neurons. In the next few years, these magnetic nano-neurons could be interconnected via artificial synapses, such as those recently developed, for real-time big data analytics and classification.

The project is a collaborative initiative between fundamental research laboratories and applied research partners. The long-term goal is to produce extremely energy-efficient miniaturised chips with the intelligence needed to learn from and adapt to the constantly ever-changing and ambiguous situations of the real world. These electronic chips will have many practical applications, such as providing smart guidance to robots or autonomous vehicles, helping doctors in their diagnosis’ and improving medical prostheses. This project included researchers from the Joint Physics Unit CNRS/Thales, the AIST, the CNS-NIST, and the Nanosciences and Nanotechnologies Centre (CNRS/Université Paris-Sud).

About the CNRS
The French National Centre for Scientific Research is Europe’s largest public research institution. It produces knowledge for the benefit of society. With nearly 32,000 employees, a budget exceeding 3.2 billion euros in 2016, and offices throughout France, the CNRS is present in all scientific fields through its 1100 laboratories. With 21 Nobel laureates and 12 Fields Medal winners, the organization has a long tradition of excellence. It carries out research in mathematics, physics, information sciences and technologies, nuclear and particle physics, Earth sciences and astronomy, chemistry, biological sciences, the humanities and social sciences, engineering and the environment.

About the Université Paris-Saclay (France)
To meet global demand for higher education, research and innovation, 19 of France’s most renowned establishments have joined together to form the Université Paris-Saclay. The new university provides world-class teaching and research opportunities, from undergraduate courses to graduate schools and doctoral programmes, across most disciplines including life and natural sciences as well as social sciences. With 9,000 masters students, 5,500 doctoral candidates, an equivalent number of engineering students and an extensive undergraduate population, some 65,000 people now study at member establishments.

About the Center for Nanoscale Science & Technology (Maryland, USA)
The CNST is a national user facility purposely designed to accelerate innovation in nanotechnology-based commerce. Its mission is to operate a national, shared resource for nanoscale fabrication and measurement and develop innovative nanoscale measurement and fabrication capabilities to support researchers from industry, academia, NIST and other government agencies in advancing nanoscale technology from discovery to production. The Center, located in the Advanced Measurement Laboratory Complex on NIST’s Gaithersburg, MD campus, disseminates new nanoscale measurement methods by incorporating them into facility operations, collaborating and partnering with others and providing international leadership in nanotechnology.

About the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (Japan)
The National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST), one of the largest public research institutes in Japan, focuses on the creation and practical realization of technologies useful to Japanese industry and society, and on bridging the gap between innovative technological seeds and commercialization. For this, AIST is organized into 7 domains (Energy and Environment, Life Science and Biotechnology, Information Technology and Human Factors, Materials and Chemistry, Electronics and Manufacturing, Geological

About the Centre for Nanoscience and Nanotechnology (France)
Established on 1 June 2016, the Centre for Nanosciences and Nanotechnologies (C2N) was launched in the wake of the joint CNRS and Université Paris-Sud decision to merge and gather on the same campus site the Laboratory for Photonics and Nanostructures (LPN) and the Institut d’Electronique Fondamentale (IEF). Its location in the École Polytechnique district of the Paris-Saclay campus will be completed in 2017 while the new C2N buildings are under construction. The centre conducts research in material science, nanophotonics, nanoelectronics, nanobiotechnologies and microsystems, as well as in nanotechnologies.

There is a video featuring researcher Julie Grollier discussing their work but you will need your French language skills,

(If you’re interested, there is an English language video published on youtube on Feb. 19, 2017 with Julie Grollier speaking more generally about the field at the World Economic Forum about neuromorphic computing,  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sm2BGkTYFeQ

Here’s a link to and a citation for the team’s July 2017 paper,

Neuromorphic computing with nanoscale spintronic oscillators by Jacob Torrejon, Mathieu Riou, Flavio Abreu Araujo, Sumito Tsunegi, Guru Khalsa, Damien Querlioz, Paolo Bortolotti, Vincent Cros, Kay Yakushiji, Akio Fukushima, Hitoshi Kubota, Shinji Yuasa, Mark D. Stiles, & Julie Grollier. Nature 547, 428–431 (27 July 2017) doi:10.1038/nature23011 Published online 26 July 2017

This paper is behind a paywall.

Alberta adds a newish quantum nanotechnology research hub to the Canada’s quantum computing research scene

One of the winners in Canada’s 2017 federal budget announcement of the Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy was Edmonton, Alberta. It’s a fact which sometimes goes unnoticed while Canadians marvel at the wonderfulness found in Toronto and Montréal where it seems new initiatives and monies are being announced on a weekly basis (I exaggerate) for their AI (artificial intelligence) efforts.

Alberta’s quantum nanotechnology hub (graduate programme)

Intriguingly, it seems that Edmonton has higher aims than (an almost unnoticed) leadership in AI. Physicists at the University of Alberta have announced hopes to be just as successful as their AI brethren in a Nov. 27, 2017 article by Juris Graney for the Edmonton Journal,

Physicists at the University of Alberta [U of A] are hoping to emulate the success of their artificial intelligence studying counterparts in establishing the city and the province as the nucleus of quantum nanotechnology research in Canada and North America.

Google’s artificial intelligence research division DeepMind announced in July [2017] it had chosen Edmonton as its first international AI research lab, based on a long-running partnership with the U of A’s 10-person AI lab.

Retaining the brightest minds in the AI and machine-learning fields while enticing a global tech leader to Alberta was heralded as a coup for the province and the university.

It is something U of A physics professor John Davis believes the university’s new graduate program, Quanta, can help achieve in the world of quantum nanotechnology.

The field of quantum mechanics had long been a realm of theoretical science based on the theory that atomic and subatomic material like photons or electrons behave both as particles and waves.

“When you get right down to it, everything has both behaviours (particle and wave) and we can pick and choose certain scenarios which one of those properties we want to use,” he said.

But, Davis said, physicists and scientists are “now at the point where we understand quantum physics and are developing quantum technology to take to the marketplace.”

“Quantum computing used to be realm of science fiction, but now we’ve figured it out, it’s now a matter of engineering,” he said.

Quantum computing labs are being bought by large tech companies such as Google, IBM and Microsoft because they realize they are only a few years away from having this power, he said.

Those making the groundbreaking developments may want to commercialize their finds and take the technology to market and that is where Quanta comes in.

East vs. West—Again?

Ivan Semeniuk in his article, Quantum Supremacy, ignores any quantum research effort not located in either Waterloo, Ontario or metro Vancouver, British Columbia to describe a struggle between the East and the West (a standard Canadian trope). From Semeniuk’s Oct. 17, 2017 quantum article [link follows the excerpts] for the Globe and Mail’s October 2017 issue of the Report on Business (ROB),

 Lazaridis [Mike], of course, has experienced lost advantage first-hand. As co-founder and former co-CEO of Research in Motion (RIM, now called Blackberry), he made the smartphone an indispensable feature of the modern world, only to watch rivals such as Apple and Samsung wrest away Blackberry’s dominance. Now, at 56, he is engaged in a high-stakes race that will determine who will lead the next technology revolution. In the rolling heartland of southwestern Ontario, he is laying the foundation for what he envisions as a new Silicon Valley—a commercial hub based on the promise of quantum technology.

Semeniuk skips over the story of how Blackberry lost its advantage. I came onto that story late in the game when Blackberry was already in serious trouble due to a failure to recognize that the field they helped to create was moving in a new direction. If memory serves, they were trying to keep their technology wholly proprietary which meant that developers couldn’t easily create apps to extend the phone’s features. Blackberry also fought a legal battle in the US with a patent troll draining company resources and energy in proved to be a futile effort.

Since then Lazaridis has invested heavily in quantum research. He gave the University of Waterloo a serious chunk of money as they named their Quantum Nano Centre (QNC) after him and his wife, Ophelia (you can read all about it in my Sept. 25, 2012 posting about the then new centre). The best details for Lazaridis’ investments in Canada’s quantum technology are to be found on the Quantum Valley Investments, About QVI, History webpage,

History-bannerHistory has repeatedly demonstrated the power of research in physics to transform society.  As a student of history and a believer in the power of physics, Mike Lazaridis set out in 2000 to make real his bold vision to establish the Region of Waterloo as a world leading centre for physics research.  That is, a place where the best researchers in the world would come to do cutting-edge research and to collaborate with each other and in so doing, achieve transformative discoveries that would lead to the commercialization of breakthrough  technologies.

Establishing a World Class Centre in Quantum Research:

The first step in this regard was the establishment of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics.  Perimeter was established in 2000 as an independent theoretical physics research institute.  Mike started Perimeter with an initial pledge of $100 million (which at the time was approximately one third of his net worth).  Since that time, Mike and his family have donated a total of more than $170 million to the Perimeter Institute.  In addition to this unprecedented monetary support, Mike also devotes his time and influence to help lead and support the organization in everything from the raising of funds with government and private donors to helping to attract the top researchers from around the globe to it.  Mike’s efforts helped Perimeter achieve and grow its position as one of a handful of leading centres globally for theoretical research in fundamental physics.

Stephen HawkingPerimeter is located in a Governor-General award winning designed building in Waterloo.  Success in recruiting and resulting space requirements led to an expansion of the Perimeter facility.  A uniquely designed addition, which has been described as space-ship-like, was opened in 2011 as the Stephen Hawking Centre in recognition of one of the most famous physicists alive today who holds the position of Distinguished Visiting Research Chair at Perimeter and is a strong friend and supporter of the organization.

Recognizing the need for collaboration between theorists and experimentalists, in 2002, Mike applied his passion and his financial resources toward the establishment of The Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo.  IQC was established as an experimental research institute focusing on quantum information.  Mike established IQC with an initial donation of $33.3 million.  Since that time, Mike and his family have donated a total of more than $120 million to the University of Waterloo for IQC and other related science initiatives.  As in the case of the Perimeter Institute, Mike devotes considerable time and influence to help lead and support IQC in fundraising and recruiting efforts.  Mike’s efforts have helped IQC become one of the top experimental physics research institutes in the world.

Quantum ComputingMike and Doug Fregin have been close friends since grade 5.  They are also co-founders of BlackBerry (formerly Research In Motion Limited).  Doug shares Mike’s passion for physics and supported Mike’s efforts at the Perimeter Institute with an initial gift of $10 million.  Since that time Doug has donated a total of $30 million to Perimeter Institute.  Separately, Doug helped establish the Waterloo Institute for Nanotechnology at the University of Waterloo with total gifts for $29 million.  As suggested by its name, WIN is devoted to research in the area of nanotechnology.  It has established as an area of primary focus the intersection of nanotechnology and quantum physics.

With a donation of $50 million from Mike which was matched by both the Government of Canada and the province of Ontario as well as a donation of $10 million from Doug, the University of Waterloo built the Mike & Ophelia Lazaridis Quantum-Nano Centre, a state of the art laboratory located on the main campus of the University of Waterloo that rivals the best facilities in the world.  QNC was opened in September 2012 and houses researchers from both IQC and WIN.

Leading the Establishment of Commercialization Culture for Quantum Technologies in Canada:

In the Research LabFor many years, theorists have been able to demonstrate the transformative powers of quantum mechanics on paper.  That said, converting these theories to experimentally demonstrable discoveries has, putting it mildly, been a challenge.  Many naysayers have suggested that achieving these discoveries was not possible and even the believers suggested that it could likely take decades to achieve these discoveries.  Recently, a buzz has been developing globally as experimentalists have been able to achieve demonstrable success with respect to Quantum Information based discoveries.  Local experimentalists are very much playing a leading role in this regard.  It is believed by many that breakthrough discoveries that will lead to commercialization opportunities may be achieved in the next few years and certainly within the next decade.

Recognizing the unique challenges for the commercialization of quantum technologies (including risk associated with uncertainty of success, complexity of the underlying science and high capital / equipment costs) Mike and Doug have chosen to once again lead by example.  The Quantum Valley Investment Fund will provide commercialization funding, expertise and support for researchers that develop breakthroughs in Quantum Information Science that can reasonably lead to new commercializable technologies and applications.  Their goal in establishing this Fund is to lead in the development of a commercialization infrastructure and culture for Quantum discoveries in Canada and thereby enable such discoveries to remain here.

Semeniuk goes on to set the stage for Waterloo/Lazaridis vs. Vancouver (from Semeniuk’s 2017 ROB article),

… as happened with Blackberry, the world is once again catching up. While Canada’s funding of quantum technology ranks among the top five in the world, the European Union, China, and the US are all accelerating their investments in the field. Tech giants such as Google [also known as Alphabet], Microsoft and IBM are ramping up programs to develop companies and other technologies based on quantum principles. Meanwhile, even as Lazaridis works to establish Waterloo as the country’s quantum hub, a Vancouver-area company has emerged to challenge that claim. The two camps—one methodically focused on the long game, the other keen to stake an early commercial lead—have sparked an East-West rivalry that many observers of the Canadian quantum scene are at a loss to explain.

Is it possible that some of the rivalry might be due to an influential individual who has invested heavily in a ‘quantum valley’ and has a history of trying to ‘own’ a technology?

Getting back to D-Wave Systems, the Vancouver company, I have written about them a number of times (particularly in 2015; for the full list: input D-Wave into the blog search engine). This June 26, 2015 posting includes a reference to an article in The Economist magazine about D-Wave’s commercial opportunities while the bulk of the posting is focused on a technical breakthrough.

Semeniuk offers an overview of the D-Wave Systems story,

D-Wave was born in 1999, the same year Lazaridis began to fund quantum science in Waterloo. From the start, D-Wave had a more immediate goal: to develop a new computer technology to bring to market. “We didn’t have money or facilities,” says Geordie Rose, a physics PhD who co0founded the company and served in various executive roles. …

The group soon concluded that the kind of machine most scientists were pursing based on so-called gate-model architecture was decades away from being realized—if ever. …

Instead, D-Wave pursued another idea, based on a principle dubbed “quantum annealing.” This approach seemed more likely to produce a working system, even if the application that would run on it were more limited. “The only thing we cared about was building the machine,” says Rose. “Nobody else was trying to solve the same problem.”

D-Wave debuted its first prototype at an event in California in February 2007 running it through a few basic problems such as solving a Sudoku puzzle and finding the optimal seating plan for a wedding reception. … “They just assumed we were hucksters,” says Hilton [Jeremy Hilton, D.Wave senior vice-president of systems]. Federico Spedalieri, a computer scientist at the University of Southern California’s [USC} Information Sciences Institute who has worked with D-Wave’s system, says the limited information the company provided about the machine’s operation provoked outright hostility. “I think that played against them a lot in the following years,” he says.

It seems Lazaridis is not the only one who likes to hold company information tightly.

Back to Semeniuk and D-Wave,

Today [October 2017], the Los Alamos National Laboratory owns a D-Wave machine, which costs about $15million. Others pay to access D-Wave systems remotely. This year , for example, Volkswagen fed data from thousands of Beijing taxis into a machine located in Burnaby [one of the municipalities that make up metro Vancouver] to study ways to optimize traffic flow.

But the application for which D-Wave has the hights hope is artificial intelligence. Any AI program hings on the on the “training” through which a computer acquires automated competence, and the 2000Q [a D-Wave computer] appears well suited to this task. …

Yet, for all the buzz D-Wave has generated, with several research teams outside Canada investigating its quantum annealing approach, the company has elicited little interest from the Waterloo hub. As a result, what might seem like a natural development—the Institute for Quantum Computing acquiring access to a D-Wave machine to explore and potentially improve its value—has not occurred. …

I am particularly interested in this comment as it concerns public funding (from Semeniuk’s article),

Vern Brownell, a former Goldman Sachs executive who became CEO of D-Wave in 2009, calls the lack of collaboration with Waterloo’s research community “ridiculous,” adding that his company’s efforts to establish closer ties have proven futile, “I’ll be blunt: I don’t think our relationship is good enough,” he says. Brownell also point out that, while  hundreds of millions in public funds have flowed into Waterloo’s ecosystem, little funding is available for  Canadian scientists wishing to make the most of D-Wave’s hardware—despite the fact that it remains unclear which core quantum technology will prove the most profitable.

There’s a lot more to Semeniuk’s article but this is the last excerpt,

The world isn’t waiting for Canada’s quantum rivals to forge a united front. Google, Microsoft, IBM, and Intel are racing to develop a gate-model quantum computer—the sector’s ultimate goal. (Google’s researchers have said they will unveil a significant development early next year.) With the U.K., Australia and Japan pouring money into quantum, Canada, an early leader, is under pressure to keep up. The federal government is currently developing  a strategy for supporting the country’s evolving quantum sector and, ultimately, getting a return on its approximately $1-billion investment over the past decade [emphasis mine].

I wonder where the “approximately $1-billion … ” figure came from. I ask because some years ago MP Peter Julian asked the government for information about how much Canadian federal money had been invested in nanotechnology. The government replied with sheets of paper (a pile approximately 2 inches high) that had funding disbursements from various ministries. Each ministry had its own method with different categories for listing disbursements and the titles for the research projects were not necessarily informative for anyone outside a narrow specialty. (Peter Julian’s assistant had kindly sent me a copy of the response they had received.) The bottom line is that it would have been close to impossible to determine the amount of federal funding devoted to nanotechnology using that data. So, where did the $1-billion figure come from?

In any event, it will be interesting to see how the Council of Canadian Academies assesses the ‘quantum’ situation in its more academically inclined, “The State of Science and Technology and Industrial Research and Development in Canada,” when it’s released later this year (2018).

Finally, you can find Semeniuk’s October 2017 article here but be aware it’s behind a paywall.

Whither we goest?

Despite any doubts one might have about Lazaridis’ approach to research and technology, his tremendous investment and support cannot be denied. Without him, Canada’s quantum research efforts would be substantially less significant. As for the ‘cowboys’ in Vancouver, it takes a certain temperament to found a start-up company and it seems the D-Wave folks have more in common with Lazaridis than they might like to admit. As for the Quanta graduate  programme, it’s early days yet and no one should ever count out Alberta.

Meanwhile, one can continue to hope that a more thoughtful approach to regional collaboration will be adopted so Canada can continue to blaze trails in the field of quantum research.

CRISPR-CAS9 and gold

As so often happens in the sciences, now that the initial euphoria has expended itself problems (and solutions) with CRISPR ((clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats))-CAAS9 are being disclosed to those of us who are not experts. From an Oct. 3, 2017 article by Bob Yirka for phys.org,

A team of researchers from the University of California and the University of Tokyo has found a way to use the CRISPR gene editing technique that does not rely on a virus for delivery. In their paper published in the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering, the group describes the new technique, how well it works and improvements that need to be made to make it a viable gene editing tool.

CRISPR-Cas9 has been in the news a lot lately because it allows researchers to directly edit genes—either disabling unwanted parts or replacing them altogether. But despite many success stories, the technique still suffers from a major deficit that prevents it from being used as a true medical tool—it sometimes makes mistakes. Those mistakes can cause small or big problems for a host depending on what goes wrong. Prior research has suggested that the majority of mistakes are due to delivery problems, which means that a replacement for the virus part of the technique is required. In this new effort, the researchers report that they have discovered just a such a replacement, and it worked so well that it was able to repair a gene mutation in a Duchenne muscular dystrophy mouse model. The team has named the new technique CRISPR-Gold, because a gold nanoparticle was used to deliver the gene editing molecules instead of a virus.

An Oct. 2, 2017 article by Abby Olena for The Scientist lays out the CRISPR-CAS9 problems the scientists are trying to solve (Note: Links have been removed),

While promising, applications of CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing have so far been limited by the challenges of delivery—namely, how to get all the CRISPR parts to every cell that needs them. In a study published today (October 2) in Nature Biomedical Engineering, researchers have successfully repaired a mutation in the gene for dystrophin in a mouse model of Duchenne muscular dystrophy by injecting a vehicle they call CRISPR-Gold, which contains the Cas9 protein, guide RNA, and donor DNA, all wrapped around a tiny gold ball.

The authors have made “great progress in the gene editing area,” says Tufts University biomedical engineer Qiaobing Xu, who did not participate in the work but penned an accompanying commentary. Because their approach is nonviral, Xu explains, it will minimize the potential off-target effects that result from constant Cas9 activity, which occurs when users deliver the Cas9 template with a viral vector.

Duchenne muscular dystrophy is a degenerative disease of the muscles caused by a lack of the protein dystrophin. In about a third of patients, the gene for dystrophin has small deletions or single base mutations that render it nonfunctional, which makes this gene an excellent candidate for gene editing. Researchers have previously used viral delivery of CRISPR-Cas9 components to delete the mutated exon and achieve clinical improvements in mouse models of the disease.

“In this paper, we were actually able to correct [the gene for] dystrophin back to the wild-type sequence” via homology-directed repair (HDR), coauthor Niren Murthy, a drug delivery researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, tells The Scientist. “The other way of treating this is to do something called exon skipping, which is where you delete some of the exons and you can get dystrophin to be produced, but it’s not [as functional as] the wild-type protein.”

The research team created CRISPR-Gold by covering a central gold nanoparticle with DNA that they modified so it would stick to the particle. This gold-conjugated DNA bound the donor DNA needed for HDR, which the Cas9 protein and guide RNA bound to in turn. They coated the entire complex with a polymer that seems to trigger endocytosis and then facilitate escape of the Cas9 protein, guide RNA, and template DNA from endosomes within cells.

In order to do HDR, “you have to provide the cell [with] the Cas9 enzyme, guide RNA by which you target Cas9 to a particular part of the genome, and a big chunk of DNA, which will be used as a template to edit the mutant sequence to wild-type,” explains coauthor Irina Conboy, who studies tissue repair at the University of California, Berkeley. “They all have to be present at the same time and at the same place, so in our system you have a nanoparticle which simultaneously delivers all of those three key components in their active state.”

Olena’s article carries on to describe how the team created CRISPR-Gold and more.

Additional technical details are available in an Oct. 3, 2017 University of California at Berkeley news release by Brett Israel (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item (Note: A link has been removed) ,

Scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, have engineered a new way to deliver CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technology inside cells and have demonstrated in mice that the technology can repair the mutation that causes Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a severe muscle-wasting disease. A new study shows that a single injection of CRISPR-Gold, as the new delivery system is called, into mice with Duchenne muscular dystrophy led to an 18-times-higher correction rate and a two-fold increase in a strength and agility test compared to control groups.

Diagram of CRISPR-Gold

CRISPR–Gold is composed of 15 nanometer gold nanoparticles that are conjugated to thiol-modified oligonucleotides (DNA-Thiol), which are hybridized with single-stranded donor DNA and subsequently complexed with Cas9 and encapsulated by a polymer that disrupts the endosome of the cell.

Since 2012, when study co-author Jennifer Doudna, a professor of molecular and cell biology and of chemistry at UC Berkeley, and colleague Emmanuelle Charpentier, of the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology, repurposed the Cas9 protein to create a cheap, precise and easy-to-use gene editor, researchers have hoped that therapies based on CRISPR-Cas9 would one day revolutionize the treatment of genetic diseases. Yet developing treatments for genetic diseases remains a big challenge in medicine. This is because most genetic diseases can be cured only if the disease-causing gene mutation is corrected back to the normal sequence, and this is impossible to do with conventional therapeutics.

CRISPR/Cas9, however, can correct gene mutations by cutting the mutated DNA and triggering homology-directed DNA repair. However, strategies for safely delivering the necessary components (Cas9, guide RNA that directs Cas9 to a specific gene, and donor DNA) into cells need to be developed before the potential of CRISPR-Cas9-based therapeutics can be realized. A common technique to deliver CRISPR-Cas9 into cells employs viruses, but that technique has a number of complications. CRISPR-Gold does not need viruses.

In the new study, research lead by the laboratories of Berkeley bioengineering professors Niren Murthy and Irina Conboy demonstrated that their novel approach, called CRISPR-Gold because gold nanoparticles are a key component, can deliver Cas9 – the protein that binds and cuts DNA – along with guide RNA and donor DNA into the cells of a living organism to fix a gene mutation.

“CRISPR-Gold is the first example of a delivery vehicle that can deliver all of the CRISPR components needed to correct gene mutations, without the use of viruses,” Murthy said.

The study was published October 2 [2017] in the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering.

CRISPR-Gold repairs DNA mutations through a process called homology-directed repair. Scientists have struggled to develop homology-directed repair-based therapeutics because they require activity at the same place and time as Cas9 protein, an RNA guide that recognizes the mutation and donor DNA to correct the mutation.

To overcome these challenges, the Berkeley scientists invented a delivery vessel that binds all of these components together, and then releases them when the vessel is inside a wide variety of cell types, triggering homology directed repair. CRISPR-Gold’s gold nanoparticles coat the donor DNA and also bind Cas9. When injected into mice, their cells recognize a marker in CRISPR-Gold and then import the delivery vessel. Then, through a series of cellular mechanisms, CRISPR-Gold is released into the cells’ cytoplasm and breaks apart, rapidly releasing Cas9 and donor DNA.

Schematic of CRISPR-Gold's method of action

CRISPR-Gold’s method of action (Click to enlarge).

A single injection of CRISPR-Gold into muscle tissue of mice that model Duchenne muscular dystrophy restored 5.4 percent of the dystrophin gene, which causes the disease, to the wild- type, or normal, sequence. This correction rate was approximately 18 times higher than in mice treated with Cas9 and donor DNA by themselves, which experienced only a 0.3 percent correction rate.

Importantly, the study authors note, CRISPR-Gold faithfully restored the normal sequence of dystrophin, which is a significant improvement over previously published approaches that only removed the faulty part of the gene, making it shorter and converting one disease into another, milder disease.

CRISPR-Gold was also able to reduce tissue fibrosis – the hallmark of diseases where muscles do not function properly – and enhanced strength and agility in mice with Duchenne muscular dystrophy. CRISPR-Gold-treated mice showed a two-fold increase in hanging time in a common test for mouse strength and agility, compared to mice injected with a control.

“These experiments suggest that it will be possible to develop non-viral CRISPR therapeutics that can safely correct gene mutations, via the process of homology-directed repair, by simply developing nanoparticles that can simultaneously encapsulate all of the CRISPR components,” Murthy said.

CRISPR-Cas9

CRISPR in action: A model of the Cas9 protein cutting a double-stranded piece of DNA

The study found that CRISPR-Gold’s approach to Cas9 protein delivery is safer than viral delivery of CRISPR, which, in addition to toxicity, amplifies the side effects of Cas9 through continuous expression of this DNA-cutting enzyme. When the research team tested CRISPR-Gold’s gene-editing capability in mice, they found that CRISPR-Gold efficiently corrected the DNA mutation that causes Duchenne muscular dystrophy, with minimal collateral DNA damage.

The researchers quantified CRISPR-Gold’s off-target DNA damage and found damage levels similar to the that of a typical DNA sequencing error in a typical cell that was not exposed to CRISPR (0.005 – 0.2 percent). To test for possible immunogenicity, the blood stream cytokine profiles of mice were analyzed at 24 hours and two weeks after the CRISPR-Gold injection. CRISPR-Gold did not cause an acute up-regulation of inflammatory cytokines in plasma, after multiple injections, or weight loss, suggesting that CRISPR-Gold can be used multiple times safely, and that it has a high therapeutic window for gene editing in muscle tissue.

“CRISPR-Gold and, more broadly, CRISPR-nanoparticles open a new way for safer, accurately controlled delivery of gene-editing tools,” Conboy said. “Ultimately, these techniques could be developed into a new medicine for Duchenne muscular dystrophy and a number of other genetic diseases.”

A clinical trial will be needed to discern whether CRISPR-Gold is an effective treatment for genetic diseases in humans. Study co-authors Kunwoo Lee and Hyo Min Park have formed a start-up company, GenEdit (Murthy has an ownership stake in GenEdit), which is focused on translating the CRISPR-Gold technology into humans. The labs of Murthy and Conboy are also working on the next generation of particles that can deliver CRISPR into tissues from the blood stream and would preferentially target adult stem cells, which are considered the best targets for gene correction because stem and progenitor cells are capable of gene editing, self-renewal and differentiation.

“Genetic diseases cause devastating levels of mortality and morbidity, and new strategies for treating them are greatly needed,” Murthy said. “CRISPR-Gold was able to correct disease-causing gene mutations in vivo, via the non-viral delivery of Cas9 protein, guide RNA and donor DNA, and therefore has the potential to develop into a therapeutic for treating genetic diseases.”

The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health, the W.M. Keck Foundation, the Moore Foundation, the Li Ka Shing Foundation, Calico, Packer, Roger’s and SENS, and the Center of Innovation (COI) Program of the Japan Science and Technology Agency.

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

Nanoparticle delivery of Cas9 ribonucleoprotein and donor DNA in vivo induces homology-directed DNA repair by Kunwoo Lee, Michael Conboy, Hyo Min Park, Fuguo Jiang, Hyun Jin Kim, Mark A. Dewitt, Vanessa A. Mackley, Kevin Chang, Anirudh Rao, Colin Skinner, Tamanna Shobha, Melod Mehdipour, Hui Liu, Wen-chin Huang, Freeman Lan, Nicolas L. Bray, Song Li, Jacob E. Corn, Kazunori Kataoka, Jennifer A. Doudna, Irina Conboy, & Niren Murthy. Nature Biomedical Engineering (2017) doi:10.1038/s41551-017-0137-2 Published online: 02 October 2017

This paper is behind a paywall.

Cleaning up disasters with Hokusai’s blue and cellulose nanofibers to clean up contaminated soil and water in Fukushima

The Great Wave off Kanagawa (Under a wave off Kanagawa”), also known as The Great Wave or simply The Wave, by Katsushika Hokusai – Metropolitan Museum of Art, online database: entry 45434, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2798407

I thought it might be a good idea to embed a copy of Hokusai’s Great Wave and the blue these scientists in Japan have used as their inspiration. (By the way, it seems these scientists collaborated with Mildred Dresselhaus who died at the age of 86, a few months after their paper was published. In honour of he and before the latest, here’s my Feb. 23, 2017 posting about the ‘Queen of Carbon’.)

Now onto more current news, from an Oct. 13, 2017 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

By combining the same Prussian blue pigment used in the works of popular Edo-period artist Hokusai and cellulose nanofiber, a raw material of paper, a University of Tokyo research team succeeded in synthesizing compound nanoparticles, comprising organic and inorganic substances (Scientific Reports, “Cellulose nanofiber backboned Prussian blue nanoparticles as powerful adsorbents for the selective elimination of radioactive cesium”). This new class of organic/inorganic composite nanoparticles is able to selectively adsorb, or collect on the surface, radioactive cesium.

The team subsequently developed sponges from these nanoparticles that proved highly effective in decontaminating the water and soil in Fukushima Prefecture exposed to radioactivity following the nuclear accident there in March 2011.

I think these are the actual sponges not an artist’s impression,

Decontamination sponge spawned from current study
Cellulose nanofiber-Prussian blue compounds are permanently anchored in spongiform chambers (cells) in this decontamination sponge. It can thus be used as a powerful adsorbent for selectively eliminating radioactive cesium. © 2017 Sakata & Mori Laboratory.

An Oct. 13, 2017 University of Tokyo press release, which originated the news item, provides more detail about the sponges and the difficulties of remediating radioactive air and soil,

Removing radioactive materials such as cesium-134 and -137 from contaminated seawater or soil is not an easy job. First of all, a huge amount of similar substances with competing functions has to be removed from the area, an extremely difficult task. Prussian blue (ferric hexacyanoferrate) has a jungle gym-like colloidal structure, and the size of its single cubic orifice, or opening, is a near-perfect match to the size of cesium ions; therefore, it is prescribed as medication for patients exposed to radiation for selectively adsorbing cesium. However, as Prussian blue is highly attracted to water, recovering it becomes highly difficult once it is dissolved into the environment; for this reason, its use in the field for decontamination has been limited.

Taking a hint from the Prussian blue in Hokusai’s woodblock prints not losing their color even when getting wet from rain, the team led by Professor Ichiro Sakata and Project Professor Bunshi Fugetsu at the University of Tokyo’s Nanotechnology Innovation Research Unit at the Policy Alternatives Research Institute, and Project Researcher Adavan Kiliyankil Vipin at the Graduate School of Engineering developed an insoluble nanoparticle obtained from combining cellulose and Prussian blue—Hokusai had in fact formed a chemical bond in his handling of Prussian blue and paper (cellulose).

The scientists created this cellulose-Prussian blue combined nanoparticle by first preparing cellulose nanofibers using a process called TEMPO oxidization and securing ferric ions (III) onto them, then introduced a certain amount of hexacyanoferrate, which adhered to Prussian blue nanoparticles with a diameter ranging from 5–10 nanometers. The nanoparticles obtained in this way were highly resistant to water, and moreover, were capable of adsorbing 139 mg of radioactive cesium ion per gram.

Field studies on soil decontamination in Fukushima have been underway since last year. A highly effective approach has been to sow and allow plant seeds to germinate inside the sponge made from the nanoparticles, then getting the plants’ roots to take up cesium ions from the soil to the sponge. Water can significantly shorten decontamination times compared to soil, which usually requires extracting cesium from it with a solvent.

It has been more than six years since the radioactive fallout from a series of accidents at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant following the giant earthquake and tsunami in northeastern Japan. Decontamination with the cellulose nanofiber-Prussian blue compound can lead to new solutions for contamination in disaster-stricken areas.

“I was pondering about how Prussian blue immediately gets dissolved in water when I happened upon a Hokusai woodblock print, and how the indigo color remained firmly set in the paper, without bleeding, even after all these years,” reflects Fugetsu. He continues, “That revelation provided a clue for a solution.”

“The amount of research on cesium decontamination increased after the Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident, but a lot of the studies were limited to being academic and insufficient for practical application in Fukushima,” says Vipin. He adds, “Our research offers practical applications and has high potential for decontamination on an industrial scale not only in Fukushima but also in other cesium-contaminated areas.”

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

Cellulose nanofiber backboned Prussian blue nanoparticles as powerful adsorbents for the selective elimination of radioactive cesium by Adavan Kiliyankil Vipin, Bunshi Fugetsu, Ichiro Sakata, Akira Isogai, Morinobu Endo, Mingda Li, & Mildred S. Dresselhaus. Scientific Reports 6, Article number: 37009 (2016) doi:10.1038/srep37009 Published online: 15 November 2016

This is open access.

(Merry Christmas!) Japanese tree frogs inspire hardware for the highest of tech: a swarmalator

First, the frog,

[Japanese Tree Frog] By 池田正樹 (talk)masaki ikeda – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4593224

I wish they had a recording of the mating calls for Japanese tree frogs since they were the inspiration for mathematicians at Cornell University (New York state, US) according to a November 17, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily,

How does the Japanese tree frog figure into the latest work of noted mathematician Steven Strogatz? As it turns out, quite prominently.

“We had read about these funny frogs that hop around and croak,” said Strogatz, the Jacob Gould Schurman Professor of Applied Mathematics. “They form patterns in space and time. Usually it’s about reproduction. And based on how the other guy or guys are croaking, they don’t want to be around another one that’s croaking at the same time as they are, because they’ll jam each other.”

A November 15, 2017 Cornell University news release (also on EurekAlert but dated November 17, 2017) by Tom Fleischman, which originated the news item, details how the calls led to ‘swarmalators’ (Note: Links have been removed),

Strogatz and Kevin O’Keeffe, Ph.D. ’17, used the curious mating ritual of male Japanese tree frogs as inspiration for their exploration of “swarmalators” – their term for systems in which both synchronization and swarming occur together.

Specifically, they considered oscillators whose phase dynamics and spatial dynamics are coupled. In the instance of the male tree frogs, they attempt to croak in exact anti-phase (one croaks while the other is silent) while moving away from a rival so as to be heard by females.

This opens up “a new class of math problems,” said Strogatz, a Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow. “The question is, what do we expect to see when people start building systems like this or observing them in biology?”

Their paper, “Oscillators That Sync and Swarm,” was published Nov. 13 [2017] in Nature Communications. Strogatz and O’Keeffe – now a postdoctoral researcher with the Senseable City Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – collaborated with Hyunsuk Hong from Chonbuk National University in Jeonju, South Korea.

Swarming and synchronization both involve large, self-organizing groups of individuals interacting according to simple rules, but rarely have they been studied together, O’Keeffe said.

“No one had connected these two areas, in spite of the fact that there were all these parallels,” he said. “That was the theoretical idea that sort of seduced us, I suppose. And there were also a couple of concrete examples, which we liked – including the tree frogs.”

Studies of swarms focus on how animals move – think of birds flocking or fish schooling – while neglecting the dynamics of their internal states. Studies of synchronization do the opposite: They focus on oscillators’ internal dynamics. Strogatz long has been fascinated by fireflies’ synchrony and other similar phenomena, giving a TED Talk on the topic in 2004, but not on their motion.

“[Swarming and synchronization] are so similar, and yet they were never connected together, and it seems so obvious,” O’Keeffe said. “It’s a whole new landscape of possible behaviors that hadn’t been explored before.”

Using a pair of governing equations that assume swarmalators are free to move about, along with numerical simulations, the group found that a swarmalator system settles into one of five states:

  • Static synchrony – featuring circular symmetry, crystal-like distribution, fully synchronized in phase;
  • Static asynchrony – featuring uniform distribution, meaning that every phase occurs everywhere;
  • Static phase wave – swarmalators settle near others in a phase similar to their own, and phases are frozen at their initial values;
  • Splintered phase wave – nonstationary, disconnected clusters of distinct phases; and
  • Active phase wave – similar to bidirectional states found in biological swarms, where populations split into counter-rotating subgroups; also similar to vortex arrays formed by groups of sperm.

Through the study of simple models, the group found that the coupling of “sync” and “swarm” leads to rich patterns in both time and space, and could lead to further study of systems that exhibit this dual behavior.

“This opens up a lot of questions for many parts of science – there are a lot of things to try that people hadn’t thought of trying,” Strogatz said. “It’s science that opens doors for science. It’s inaugurating science, rather than culminating science.”

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

Oscillators that sync and swarm by Kevin P. O’Keeffe, Hyunsuk Hong, & Steven H. Strogatz. Nature Communications 8, Article number: 1504 (2017) doi:10.1038/s41467-017-01190-3 Published online: 15 November 2017

This paper is open access.

One last thing, these frogs have also inspired WiFi improvements (from the Japanese tree frog Wikipedia entry; Note: Links have been removed),

Journalist Toyohiro Akiyama carried some Japanese tree frogs with him during his trip to the Mir space station in December 1990.[citation needed] Calling behavior of the species was used to create an algorithm for optimizing Wi-Fi networks.[3]

While it’s not clear in the Wikipedia entry, the frogs were part of an experiment. Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper about the experiment, along with an abstract,

The Frog in Space (FRIS) experiment onboard Space Station Mir: final report and follow-on studies by Yamashita, M.; Izumi-Kurotani, A.; Mogami, Y.; Okuno,k M.; Naitoh, T.; Wassersug, R. J. Biol Sci Space. 1997 Dec 11(4):313-20.

Abstract

The “Frog in Space” (FRIS) experiment marked a major step for Japanese space life science, on the occasion of the first space flight of a Japanese cosmonaut. At the core of FRIS were six Japanese tree frogs, Hyla japonica, flown on Space Station Mir for 8 days in 1990. The behavior of these frogs was observed and recorded under microgravity. The frogs took up a “parachuting” posture when drifting in a free volume on Mir. When perched on surfaces, they typically sat with their heads bent backward. Such a peculiar posture, after long exposure to microgravity, is discussed in light of motion sickness in amphibians. Histological examinations and other studies were made on the specimens upon recovery. Some organs, such as the liver and the vertebra, showed changes as a result of space flight; others were unaffected. Studies that followed FRIS have been conducted to prepare for a second FRIS on the International Space Station. Interspecific diversity in the behavioral reactions of anurans to changes in acceleration is the major focus of these investigations. The ultimate goal of this research is to better understand how organisms have adapted to gravity through their evolution on earth.

The paper is open access.

Limitless energy and the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER)

Over 30 years in the dreaming, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) is now said to be 1/2 way to completing construction. A December 6, 2017 ITER press release (received via email) makes the joyful announcement,

WORLD’S MOST COMPLEX MACHINE IS 50 PERCENT COMPLETED
ITER is proving that fusion is the future source of clean, abundant, safe and economic energy_

The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), a project to prove that fusion power can be produced on a commercial scale and is sustainable, is now 50 percent built to initial operation. Fusion is the same energy source from the Sun that gives the Earth its light and warmth.

ITER will use hydrogen fusion, controlled by superconducting magnets, to produce massive heat energy. In the commercial machines that will follow, this heat will drive turbines to produce electricity with these positive benefits:

* Fusion energy is carbon-free and environmentally sustainable, yet much more powerful than fossil fuels. A pineapple-sized amount of hydrogen offers as much fusion energy as 10,000 tons of coal.

* ITER uses two forms of hydrogen fuel: deuterium, which is easily extracted from seawater; and tritium, which is bred from lithium inside the fusion reactor. The supply of fusion fuel for industry and megacities is abundant, enough for millions of years.

* When the fusion reaction is disrupted, the reactor simply shuts down-safely and without external assistance. Tiny amounts of fuel are used, about 2-3 grams at a time; so there is no physical possibility of a meltdown accident.

* Building and operating a fusion power plant is targeted to be comparable to the cost of a fossil fuel or nuclear fission plant. But unlike today’s nuclear plants, a fusion plant will not have the costs of high-level radioactive waste disposal. And unlike fossil fuel plants,
fusion will not have the environmental cost of releasing CO2 and other pollutants.

ITER is the most complex science project in human history. The hydrogen plasma will be heated to 150 million degrees Celsius, ten times hotter than the core of the Sun, to enable the fusion reaction. The process happens in a donut-shaped reactor, called a tokamak(*), which is surrounded by giant magnets that confine and circulate the superheated, ionized plasma, away from the metal walls. The superconducting magnets must be cooled to minus 269°C, as cold as interstellar space.

The ITER facility is being built in Southern France by a scientific partnership of 35 countries. ITER’s specialized components, roughly 10 million parts in total, are being manufactured in industrial facilities all over the world. They are subsequently shipped to the ITER worksite, where they must be assembled, piece-by-piece, into the final machine.

Each of the seven ITER members-the European Union, China, India, Japan, Korea, Russia, and the United States-is fabricating a significant portion of the machine. This adds to ITER’s complexity.

In a message dispatched on December 1 [2017] to top-level officials in ITER member governments, the ITER project reported that it had completed 50 percent of the “total construction work scope through First Plasma” (**). First Plasma, scheduled for December 2025, will be the first stage of operation for ITER as a functional machine.

“The stakes are very high for ITER,” writes Bernard Bigot, Ph.D., Director-General of ITER. “When we prove that fusion is a viable energy source, it will eventually replace burning fossil fuels, which are non-renewable and non-sustainable. Fusion will be complementary with wind, solar, and other renewable energies.

“ITER’s success has demanded extraordinary project management, systems engineering, and almost perfect integration of our work.

“Our design has taken advantage of the best expertise of every member’s scientific and industrial base. No country could do this alone. We are all learning from each other, for the world’s mutual benefit.”

The ITER 50 percent milestone is getting significant attention.

“We are fortunate that ITER and fusion has had the support of world leaders, historically and currently,” says Director-General Bigot. “The concept of the ITER project was conceived at the 1985 Geneva Summit between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. When the ITER Agreement was signed in 2006, it was strongly supported by leaders such as French President Jacques Chirac, U.S. President George W. Bush, and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

“More recently, President Macron and U.S. President Donald Trump exchanged letters about ITER after their meeting this past July. One month earlier, President Xi Jinping of China hosted Russian President Vladimir Putin and other world leaders in a showcase featuring ITER and fusion power at the World EXPO in Astana, Kazakhstan.

“We know that other leaders have been similarly involved behind the scenes. It is clear that each ITER member understands the value and importance of this project.”

Why use this complex manufacturing arrangement?

More than 80 percent of the cost of ITER, about $22 billion or EUR18 billion, is contributed in the form of components manufactured by the partners. Many of these massive components of the ITER machine must be precisely fitted-for example, 17-meter-high magnets with less than a millimeter of tolerance. Each component must be ready on time to fit into the Master Schedule for machine assembly.

Members asked for this deal for three reasons. First, it means that most of the ITER costs paid by any member are actually paid to that member’s companies; the funding stays in-country. Second, the companies working on ITER build new industrial expertise in major fields-such as electromagnetics, cryogenics, robotics, and materials science. Third, this new expertise leads to innovation and spin-offs in other fields.

For example, expertise gained working on ITER’s superconducting magnets is now being used to map the human brain more precisely than ever before.

The European Union is paying 45 percent of the cost; China, India, Japan, Korea, Russia, and the United States each contribute 9 percent equally. All members share in ITER’s technology; they receive equal access to the intellectual property and innovation that comes from building ITER.

When will commercial fusion plants be ready?

ITER scientists predict that fusion plants will start to come on line as soon as 2040. The exact timing, according to fusion experts, will depend on the level of public urgency and political will that translates to financial investment.

How much power will they provide?

The ITER tokamak will produce 500 megawatts of thermal power. This size is suitable for studying a “burning” or largely self-heating plasma, a state of matter that has never been produced in a controlled environment on Earth. In a burning plasma, most of the plasma heating comes from the fusion reaction itself. Studying the fusion science and technology at ITER’s scale will enable optimization of the plants that follow.

A commercial fusion plant will be designed with a slightly larger plasma chamber, for 10-15 times more electrical power. A 2,000-megawatt fusion electricity plant, for example, would supply 2 million homes.

How much would a fusion plant cost and how many will be needed?

The initial capital cost of a 2,000-megawatt fusion plant will be in the range of $10 billion. These capital costs will be offset by extremely low operating costs, negligible fuel costs, and infrequent component replacement costs over the 60-year-plus life of the plant. Capital costs will decrease with large-scale deployment of fusion plants.

At current electricity usage rates, one fusion plant would be more than enough to power a city the size of Washington, D.C. The entire D.C. metropolitan area could be powered with four fusion plants, with zero carbon emissions.

“If fusion power becomes universal, the use of electricity could be expanded greatly, to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions from transportation, buildings and industry,” predicts Dr. Bigot. “Providing clean, abundant, safe, economic energy will be a miracle for our planet.”

*     *     *

FOOTNOTES:

* “Tokamak” is a word of Russian origin meaning a toroidal or donut-shaped magnetic chamber. Tokamaks have been built and operated for the past six decades. They are today’s most advanced fusion device design.

** “Total construction work scope,” as used in ITER’s project performance metrics, includes design, component manufacturing, building construction, shipping and delivery, assembly, and installation.

It is an extraordinary project on many levels as Henry Fountain notes in a March 27, 2017 article for the New York Times (Note: Links have been removed),

At a dusty construction site here amid the limestone ridges of Provence, workers scurry around immense slabs of concrete arranged in a ring like a modern-day Stonehenge.

It looks like the beginnings of a large commercial power plant, but it is not. The project, called ITER, is an enormous, and enormously complex and costly, physics experiment. But if it succeeds, it could determine the power plants of the future and make an invaluable contribution to reducing planet-warming emissions.

ITER, short for International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (and pronounced EAT-er), is being built to test a long-held dream: that nuclear fusion, the atomic reaction that takes place in the sun and in hydrogen bombs, can be controlled to generate power.

ITER will produce heat, not electricity. But if it works — if it produces more energy than it consumes, which smaller fusion experiments so far have not been able to do — it could lead to plants that generate electricity without the climate-affecting carbon emissions of fossil-fuel plants or most of the hazards of existing nuclear reactors that split atoms rather than join them.

Success, however, has always seemed just a few decades away for ITER. The project has progressed in fits and starts for years, plagued by design and management problems that have led to long delays and ballooning costs.

ITER is moving ahead now, with a director-general, Bernard Bigot, who took over two years ago after an independent analysis that was highly critical of the project. Dr. Bigot, who previously ran France’s atomic energy agency, has earned high marks for resolving management problems and developing a realistic schedule based more on physics and engineering and less on politics.

The site here is now studded with tower cranes as crews work on the concrete structures that will support and surround the heart of the experiment, a doughnut-shaped chamber called a tokamak. This is where the fusion reactions will take place, within a plasma, a roiling cloud of ionized atoms so hot that it can be contained only by extremely strong magnetic fields.

Here’s a rendering of the proposed reactor,

Source: ITER Organization

It seems the folks at the New York Times decided to remove the notes which help make sense of this image. However, it does get the idea across.

If I read the article rightly, the official cost in March 2017 was around 22 B Euros and more will likely be needed. You can read Fountain’s article for more information about fusion and ITER or go to the ITER website.

I could have sworn a local (Vancouver area) company called General Fusion was involved in the ITER project but I can’t track down any sources for confirmation. The sole connection I could find is in a documentary about fusion technology,

Here’s a little context for the film from a July 4, 2017 General Fusion news release (Note: A link has been removed),

A new documentary featuring General Fusion has captured the exciting progress in fusion across the public and private sectors.

Let There Be Light made its international premiere at the South By Southwest (SXSW) music and film festival in March [2017] to critical acclaim. The film was quickly purchased by Amazon Video, where it will be available for more than 70 million users to stream.

Let There Be Light follows scientists at General Fusion, ITER and Lawrenceville Plasma Physics in their pursuit of a clean, safe and abundant source of energy to power the world.

The feature length documentary has screened internationally across Europe and North America. Most recently it was shown at the Hot Docs film festival in Toronto, where General Fusion founder and Chief Scientist Dr. Michel Laberge joined fellow fusion physicist Dr. Mark Henderson from ITER at a series of Q&A panels with the filmmakers.

Laberge and Henderson were also interviewed by the popular CBC radio science show Quirks and Quarks, discussing different approaches to fusion, its potential benefits, and the challenges it faces.

It is yet to be confirmed when the film will be release for streaming, check Amazon Video for details.

You can find out more about General Fusion here.

Brief final comment

ITER is a breathtaking effort but if you’ve read about other large scale projects such as building a railway across the Canadian Rocky Mountains, establishing telecommunications in an  astonishing number of countries around the world, getting someone to the moon, eliminating small pox, building the pyramids, etc., it seems standard operating procedure both for the successes I’ve described and for the failures we’ve forgotten. Where ITER will finally rest on the continuum between success and failure is yet to be determined but the problems experienced so far are not necessarily a predictor.

I wish the engineers, scientists, visionaries, and others great success with finding better ways to produce energy.

Historic and other buildings get protection from pollution?

This Sept. 15, 2017 news item on Nanowerk announces a new product for protecting buildings from pollution,

The organic pollution decomposing properties of titanium dioxide (TiO2 ) have been known for about half a century. However, practical applications have been few and hard to develop, but now a Greek paint producer claims to have found a solution

A Sept. 11, 2017 Youris (European Research Media Center) press release by Koen Mortelmans which originated the news item expands on the theme,

The photocatalytic properties of anatase, one of the three naturally occurring forms of titanium dioxide, were discovered in Japan in the late 1960s. Under the influence of the UV-radiation in sunlight, it can decompose organic pollutants such as bacteria, fungi and nicotine, and some inorganic materials into carbon dioxide. The catalytic effect is caused by the nanostructure of its crystals.

Applied outdoors, this affordable and widely available material could represent an efficient self-cleaning solution for buildings. This is due to the chemical reaction, which leaves a residue on building façades, a residue then washed away when it rains. Applying it to monuments in urban areas may save our cultural heritage, which is threatened by pollutants.

However, “photocatalytic paints and additives have long been a challenge for the coating industry, because the catalytic action affects the durability of resin binders and oxidizes the paint components,” explains Ioannis Arabatzis, founder and managing director of NanoPhos, based in the Greek town of Lavrio, in one of the countries home to some of the most important monuments of human history. The Greek company is testing a paint called Kirei, inspired by a Japanese word meaning both clean and beautiful.

According to Arabatzis, it’s an innovative product because it combines the self-cleaning action of photocatalytic nanoparticles and the reflective properties of cool wall paints. “When applied on exterior surfaces this paint can reflect more than 94% of the incident InfraRed radiation (IR), saving energy and reducing costs for heating and cooling”, he says. “The reflection values are enhanced by the self-cleaning ability. Compared to conventional paints, they remain unchanged for longer.”

The development of Kirei has been included in the European project BRESAER (BREakthrough Solutions for Adaptable Envelopes in building Refurbishment) which is studying a sustainable and adaptable “envelope system” to renovate buildings. The new paint was tested and subjected to quality controls following ISO standard procedures at the company’s own facilities and in other independent laboratories. “The lab results from testing in artificial, accelerated weathering conditions are reliable,” Arabatzis claims. “There was no sign of discolouration, chalking, cracking or any other paint defect during 2,000 hours of exposure to the simulated environmental conditions. We expect the coating’s service lifetime to be at least ten years.”

Many studies are being conducted to exploit the properties of titanium dioxide. Jan Duyzer, researcher at the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (TNO) in Utrecht, focused on depollution: “There is no doubt about the ability of anatase to decrease the levels of nitrogen oxides in the air. But in real situations, there are many differences in pollution, wind, light, and temperature. We were commissioned by the Dutch government specifically to find a way to take nitrogen oxides out of the air on roads and in traffic tunnels. We used anatase coated panels. Our results were disappointing, so the government decided to discontinue the research. Furthermore, we still don’t know what caused the difference between lab and life. Our best current hypothesis is that the total surface of the coated panels is very small compared to the large volumes of polluted air passing over them,” he tells youris.com.

Experimental deployment of titanium dioxide panels on an acoustic wall along a Dutch highway – Courtesy of Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (TNO)

“In laboratory conditions the air is blown over the photocatalytic surface with a certain degree of turbulence. This results in the NOx-particles and the photocatalytic material coming into full contact with one another,” says engineer Anne Beeldens, visiting professor at KU Leuven, Belgium. Her experience with photocatalytic TiO2 is also limited to nitrogen dioxide (NOx) pollution.

In real applications, the air stream at the contact surface becomes laminar. This results in a lower velocity of the air at the surface and a lower depollution rate. Additionally, not all the air will be in contact with the photocatalytic surfaces. To ensure a good working application, the photocatalytic material needs to be positioned so that all the air is in contact with the surface and flows over it in a turbulent manner. This would allow as much of the NOx as possible to be in contact with photocatalytic material. In view of this, a good working application could lead to a reduction of 5 to 10 percent of NOx in the air, which is significant compared to other measures to reduce pollutants.”

The depollution capacity of TiO2 is undisputed, but most applications and tests have only involved specific kinds of substances. More research and measurements are required if we are to benefit more from the precious features of this material.

I think the most recent piece here on protecting buildings, i.e., the historic type, from pollution is an Oct. 21, 2014 posting: Heart of stone.

Robots in Vancouver and in Canada (one of two)

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

What is a robot?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robot ethics in Vancouver

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sexbots, could they kill?

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

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

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

Maldonado also embedded this video into her piece,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sexbots as spies

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

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

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

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

Does that make you think twice about a sexbot?

Robots and artificial intelligence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See: part two for the rest.

Nanomesh for hypoallergenic wearable electronics

It stands to reason that sensors and monitoring devices held against the skin (wearable electronics) for long periods of time could provoke an allergic reaction. Scientists at the University of Tokyo have devised a possible solution according to a July 17, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily,

A hypoallergenic electronic sensor can be worn on the skin continuously for a week without discomfort, and is so light and thin that users forget they even have it on, says a Japanese group of scientists. The elastic electrode constructed of breathable nanoscale meshes holds promise for the development of noninvasive e-skin devices that can monitor a person’s health continuously over a long period.

Here’s an image illustrating the hypoallergenic electronics,

Caption: The electric current from a flexible battery placed near the knuckle flows through the conductor and powers the LED just below the fingernail. Credit: 2017 Someya Laboratory.

A University of Tokyo press release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

Wearable electronics that monitor heart rate and other vital health signals have made headway in recent years, with next-generation gadgets employing lightweight, highly elastic materials attached directly onto the skin for more sensitive, precise measurements. However, although the ultrathin films and rubber sheets used in these devices adhere and conform well to the skin, their lack of breathability is deemed unsafe for long-term use: dermatological tests show the fine, stretchable materials prevent sweating and block airflow around the skin, causing irritation and inflammation, which ultimately could lead to lasting physiological and psychological effects.

“We learned that devices that can be worn for a week or longer for continuous monitoring were needed for practical use in medical and sports applications,” says Professor Takao Someya at the University of Tokyo’s Graduate School of Engineering whose research group had previously developed an on-skin patch that measured oxygen in blood.

In the current research, the group developed an electrode constructed from nanoscale meshes containing a water-soluble polymer, polyvinyl alcohol (PVA), and a gold layer–materials considered safe and biologically compatible with the body. The device can be applied by spraying a tiny amount of water, which dissolves the PVA nanofibers and allows it to stick easily to the skin–it conformed seamlessly to curvilinear surfaces of human skin, such as sweat pores and the ridges of an index finger’s fingerprint pattern.

The researchers next conducted a skin patch test on 20 subjects and detected no inflammation on the participants’ skin after they had worn the device for a week. The group also evaluated the permeability, with water vapor, of the nanomesh conductor–along with those of other substrates like ultrathin plastic foil and a thin rubber sheet–and found that its porous mesh structure exhibited superior gas permeability compared to that of the other materials.

Furthermore, the scientists proved the device’s mechanical durability through repeated bending and stretching, exceeding 10,000 times, of a conductor attached on the forefinger; they also established its reliability as an electrode for electromyogram recordings when its readings of the electrical activity of muscles were comparable to those obtained through conventional gel electrodes.

“It will become possible to monitor patients’ vital signs without causing any stress or discomfort,” says Someya about the future implications of the team’s research. In addition to nursing care and medical applications, the new device promises to enable continuous, precise monitoring of athletes’ physiological signals and bodily motion without impeding their training or performance.

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

Inflammation-free, gas-permeable, lightweight, stretchable on-skin electronics with nanomeshes by Akihito Miyamoto, Sungwon Lee, Nawalage Florence Cooray, Sunghoon Lee, Mami Mori, Naoji Matsuhisa, Hanbit Jin, Leona Yoda, Tomoyuki Yokota, Akira Itoh, Masaki Sekino, Hiroshi Kawasaki, Tamotsu Ebihara, Masayuki Amagai, & Takao Someya. Nature Nanotechnology (2017) doi:10.1038/nnano.2017.125 Published online 17 July 2017

This paper is behind a paywall.

Stellar’s jay gives structural colo(u)r a new look

The structural colo(u)r stories I’ve posted previously identify nanostructures as the reason for why certain animals and plants display a particular set of optical properties, colours that can’t be obtained by pigment or dye. However, the Stellar’s jay structural colour story is a little different.

Caption: Bio-inspired bright structurally colored colloidal amorphous array enhanced by controlling thickness and black background. ©Yukikazu Takeoka

From a May 8, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily,

A Nagoya University-led [Japan] research team mimics the rich color of bird plumage and demonstrates new ways to control how light interacts with materials.

Bright colors in the natural world often result from tiny structures in feathers or wings that change the way light behaves when it’s reflected. So-called “structural color” is responsible for the vivid hues of birds and butterflies. Artificially harnessing this effect could allow us to engineer new materials for applications such as solar cells and chameleon-like adaptive camouflage.

Inspired by the deep blue coloration of a native North American bird, Stellar’s jay, a team at Nagoya University reproduced the color in their lab, giving rise to a new type of artificial pigment. This development was reported in Advanced Materials.

“The Stellar’s jay’s feathers provide an excellent example of angle-independent structural color,” says last author Yukikazu Takeoka, “This color is enhanced by dark materials, which in this case can be attributed to black melanin particles in the feathers.

A May 8, 2017 Nagoya University press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on the theme of what makes the structural colour of a Stellar’s jay feather different,

In most cases, structural colors appear to change when viewed from different perspectives. For example, imagine the way that the colors on the underside of a CD appear to shift when the disc is viewed from a different angle. The difference in Stellar’s jay’s blue is that the structures, which interfere with light, sit on top of black particles that can absorb a part of this light. This means that at all angles, however you look at it, the color of the Stellar’s Jay does not change.

The team used a “layer-by-layer” approach to build up films of fine particles that recreated the microscopic sponge-like texture and black backing particles of the bird’s feathers.

To mimic the feathers, the researchers covered microscopic black core particles with layers of even smaller transparent particles, to make raspberry-like particles. The size of the core and the thickness of the layers controlled the color and saturation of the resulting pigments. Importantly, the color of these particles did not change with viewing angle.

“Our work represents a much more efficient way to design artificially produced angle-independent structural colors,” Takeoka adds. “We still have much to learn from biological systems, but if we can understand and successfully apply these phenomena, a whole range of new metamaterials will be accessible for all kinds of advanced applications where interactions with light are important.”

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

Bio-Inspired Bright Structurally Colored Colloidal Amorphous Array Enhanced by Controlling Thickness and Black Background by Masanori Iwata, Midori Teshima, Takahiro Seki, Shinya Yoshioka, and Yukikazu Takeoka. Advanced Materials DOI: 10.1002/adma.201605050 Version of Record online: 26 APR 2017

© 2017 WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

This paper is behind a paywall.

Ordinarily, I’d expect to see the term ‘nano’ somewhere in the press release or in the abstract but that’s not the case here. The best I could find was a reference to ‘submicrometer-sized .. particles” in the abstract. I suppose that could refer to the nanoscale but given that a Japanese researcher (Norio Taniguchi in 1974) coined the phrase ‘nanotechnology’ to describe research at that scale it seems unlikely that Japanese researchers some forty years later wouldn’t use that term when appropriate.