Tag Archives: Japan

500-year history of robots exhibition at London’s (UK) Science Museum

Thanks to a Feb.7, 2017 article by Benjamin Wheelock for Salon.com for the heads up regarding the ‘Robots’ exhibit at the UK’s Science Museum in London.

Prior to the exhibition’s opening on Feb. 8, 2017, The Guardian has published a preview (more about that in a minute), a photo essay, and this video about the show,

I find the robot baby to be endlessly fascinating.

The Science Museum announced its then upcoming Feb. 8  – Sept. 3, 2017 exhibition on robots in a May ?, 2016 press release,

8 February – 3 September 2017, Science Museum, London
Admission: £15 adults, £13 concessions (Free entry for under 7s; family tickets available)
Tickets available in the Museum or via sciencemuseum.org.uk/robots
Supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund


Throughout history, artists and scientists have sought to understand what it means to be human. The Science Museum’s new Robots exhibition, opening in February 2017, will explore this very human obsession to recreate ourselves, revealing the remarkable 500-year story of humanoid robots.

Featuring a unique collection of over 100 robots, from a 16th-century mechanical monk to robots from science fiction and modern-day research labs, this exhibition will enable visitors to discover the cultural, historical and technological context of humanoid robots. Visitors will be able to interact with some of the 12 working robots on display. Among many other highlights will be an articulated iron manikin from the 1500s, Cygan, a 2.4m tall 1950s robot with a glamorous past, and one of the first walking bipedal robots.

Robots have been at the heart of popular culture since the word ‘robot’ was first used in 1920, but their fascinating story dates back many centuries. Set in five different periods and places, this exhibition will explore how robots and society have been shaped by religious belief, the industrial revolution, 20th century popular culture and dreams about the future.

The quest to build ever more complex robots has transformed our understanding of the human body, and today robots are becoming increasingly human, learning from mistakes and expressing emotions. In the exhibition, visitors will go behind the scenes to glimpse recent developments from robotics research, exploring how roboticists are building robots that resemble us and interact in human-like ways. The exhibition will end by asking visitors to imagine what a shared future with robots might be like. Robots has been generously supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, with a £100,000 grant from the Collecting Cultures programme.

Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum Group said: ‘This exhibition explores the uniquely human obsession of recreating ourselves, not through paint or marble but in metal. Seeing robots through the eyes of those who built or gazed in awe at them reveals much about humanity’s hopes, fears and dreams.’

‘The latest in our series of ambitious, blockbuster exhibitions, Robots explores the wondrously rich culture, history and technology of humanoid robotics. Last year we moved gigantic spacecraft from Moscow to the Museum, but this year we will bring a robot back to life.’

Today [May ?, 2016] the Science Museum launched a Kickstarter campaign to rebuild Eric, the UK’s first robot. Originally built in 1928 by Captain Richards & A.H. Reffell, Eric was one of the world’s first robots. Built less than a decade after the word robot was first used, he travelled the globe with his makers and amazed crowds in the UK, US and Europe, before disappearing forever.

[The campaign was successful.]

You can find out more about Eric on the museum’s ‘Eric: The UK’s first robot’ webpage,

Getting back to the exhibition, the Guardian’s Ian Sample has written up a Feb. 7, 2017 preview (Note: Links have been removed),

Eric the robot wowed the crowds. He stood and bowed and answered questions as blue sparks shot from his metallic teeth. The British creation was such a hit he went on tour around the world. When he arrived in New York, in 1929, a theatre nightwatchman was so alarmed he pulled out a gun and shot at him.

The curators at London’s Science Museum hope for a less extreme reaction when they open Robots, their latest exhibition, on Wednesday [Feb. 8, 2016]. The collection of more than 100 objects is a treasure trove of delights: a miniature iron man with moving joints; a robotic swan that enthralled Mark Twain; a tiny metal woman with a wager cup who is propelled by a mechanism hidden up her skirt.

The pieces are striking and must have dazzled in their day. Ben Russell, the lead curator, points out that most people would not have seen a clock when they first clapped eyes on one exhibit, a 16th century automaton of a monk [emphasis mine], who trundled along, moved his lips, and beat his chest in contrition. It was surely mesmerising to the audiences of 1560. “Arthur C Clarke once said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” Russell says. “Well, this is where it all started.”

In every chapter of the 500-year story, robots have held a mirror to human society. Some of the earliest devices brought the Bible to life. One model of Christ on the cross rolls his head and oozes wooden blood from his side as four figures reach up. The mechanisation of faith must have drawn the congregations as much as any sermon.

But faith was not the only focus. Through clockwork animals and human figurines, model makers explored whether humans were simply conscious machines. They brought order to the universe with orreries and astrolabes. The machines became more lighthearted in the enlightened 18th century, when automatons of a flute player, a writer, and a defecating duck all made an appearance. A century later, the style was downright rowdy, with drunken aristocrats, preening dandies and the disturbing life of a sausage from farm to mouth all being recreated as automata.

That reference to an automaton of a monk reminded me of a July 22, 2009 posting where I excerpted a passage (from another blog) about a robot priest and a robot monk,

Since 1993 Robo-Priest has been on call 24-hours a day at Yokohama Central Cemetery. The bearded robot is programmed to perform funerary rites for several Buddhist sects, as well as for Protestants and Catholics. Meanwhile, Robo-Monk chants sutras, beats a religious drum and welcomes the faithful to Hotoku-ji, a Buddhist temple in Kakogawa city, Hyogo Prefecture. More recently, in 2005, a robot dressed in full samurai armour received blessings at a Shinto shrine on the Japanese island of Kyushu. Kiyomori, named after a famous 12th-century military general, prayed for the souls of all robots in the world before walking quietly out of Munakata Shrine.

Sample’s preview takes the reader up to our own age and contemporary robots. And, there is another Guardian article which offering a behind-the-scenes look at the then upcoming exhibition, a Jan. 28, 2016 piece by Jonathan Jones, ,

An android toddler lies on a pallet, its doll-like face staring at the ceiling. On a shelf rests a much more grisly creation that mixes imitation human bones and muscles, with wires instead of arteries and microchips in place of organs. It has no lower body, and a single Cyclopean eye. This store room is an eerie place, then it gets more creepy, as I glimpse behind the anatomical robot a hulking thing staring at me with glowing red eyes. Its plastic skin has been burned off to reveal a metal skeleton with pistons and plates of merciless strength. It is the Terminator, sent back in time by the machines who will rule the future to ensure humanity’s doom.

Backstage at the Science Museum, London, where these real experiments and a full-scale model from the Terminator films are gathered to be installed in the exhibition Robots, it occurs to me that our fascination with mechanical replacements for ourselves is so intense that science struggles to match it. We think of robots as artificial humans that can not only walk and talk but possess digital personalities, even a moral code. In short we accord them agency. Today, the real age of robots is coming, and yet even as these machines promise to transform work or make it obsolete, few possess anything like the charisma of the androids of our dreams and nightmares.

That’s why, although the robotic toddler sleeping in the store room is an impressive piece of tech, my heart leaps in another way at the sight of the Terminator. For this is a bad robot, a scary robot, a robot of remorseless malevolence. It has character, in other words. Its programmed persona (which in later films becomes much more helpful and supportive) is just one of those frightening, funny or touching personalities that science fiction has imagined for robots.

Can the real life – well, real simulated life – robots in the Science Museum’s new exhibition live up to these characters? The most impressively interactive robot in the show will be RoboThespian, who acts as compere for its final gallery displaying the latest advances in robotics. He stands at human height, with a white plastic face and metal arms and legs, and can answer questions about the value of pi and the nature of free will. “I’m a very clever robot,” RoboThespian claims, plausibly, if a little obnoxiously.

Except not quite as clever as all that. A human operator at a computer screen connected with Robothespian by wifi is looking through its video camera eyes and speaking with its digital voice. The result is huge fun – the droid moves in very lifelike ways as it speaks, and its interactions don’t need a live operator as they can be preprogrammed. But a freethinking, free-acting robot with a mind and personality of its own, Robothespian is not.

Our fascination with synthetic humans goes back to the human urge to recreate life itself – to reproduce the mystery of our origins. Artists have aspired to simulate human life since ancient times. The ancient Greek myth of Pygmalion, who made a statue so beautiful he fell in love with it and prayed for it to come to life, is a mythic version of Greek artists such as Pheidias and Praxiteles whose statues, with their superb imitation of muscles and movement, seem vividly alive. The sculptures of centaurs carved for the Parthenon in Athens still possess that uncanny lifelike power.

Most of the finest Greek statues were bronze, and mythology tells of metal robots that sound very much like statues come to life, including the bronze giant Talos, who was to become one of cinema’s greatest robotic monsters thanks to the special effects genius of Ray Harryhausen in Jason and the Argonauts.

Renaissance art took the quest to simulate life to new heights, with awed admirers of Michelangelo’s David claiming it even seemed to breathe (as it really does almost appear to when soft daylight casts mobile shadow on superbly sculpted ribs). So it is oddly inevitable that one of the first recorded inventors of robots was Leonardo da Vinci, consummate artist and pioneering engineer. Leonardo apparently made, or at least designed, a robot knight to amuse the court of Milan. It worked with pulleys and was capable of simple movements. Documents of this invention are frustratingly sparse, but there is a reliable eyewitness account of another of Leonardo’s automata. In 1515 he delighted Francois I, king of France, with a robot lion that walked forward towards the monarch, then released a bunch of lilies, the royal flower, from a panel that opened in its back.

One of the most uncanny androids in the Science Museum show is from Japan, a freakily lifelike female robot called Kodomoroid, the world’s first robot newscaster. With her modest downcast gaze and fine artificial complexion, she has the same fetishised femininity you might see in a Manga comic and appears to reflect a specific social construction of gender. Whether you read that as vulnerability or subservience, presumably the idea is to make us feel we are encountering a robot with real personhood. Here is a robot that combines engineering and art just as Da Vinci dreamed – it has the mechanical genius of his knight and the synthetic humanity of his perfect portrait.

Here’s a link to the Science Museum’s ‘Robots’ exhibition webspace and a link to a Guardian ‘Robots’ photo essay.

All this makes me wish I had plans to visit London, UK in the next few months.

nano tech 2017 being held in Tokyo from February 15-17, 2017

I found some news about the Alberta technology scene in the programme for Japan’s nano tech 2017 exhibition and conference to be held Feb. 15 – 17, 2017 in Tokyo. First, here’s more about the show in Japan from a Jan. 17, 2017 nano tech 2017 press release on Business Wire (also on Yahoo News),

The nano tech executive committee (chairman: Tomoji Kawai, Specially Appointed Professor, Osaka University) will be holding “nano tech 2017” – one of the world’s largest nanotechnology exhibitions, now in its 16th year – on February 15, 2017, at the Tokyo Big Sight convention center in Japan. 600 organizations (including over 40 first-time exhibitors) from 23 countries and regions are set to exhibit at the event in 1,000 booths, demonstrating revolutionary and cutting edge core technologies spanning such industries as automotive, aerospace, environment/energy, next-generation sensors, cutting-edge medicine, and more. Including attendees at the concurrently held exhibitions, the total number of visitors to the event is expected to exceed 50,000.

The theme of this year’s nano tech exhibition is “Open Nano Collaboration.” By bringing together organizations working in a wide variety of fields, the business matching event aims to promote joint development through cross-field collaboration.

Special Symposium: “Nanotechnology Contributing to the Super Smart Society”

Each year nano tech holds Special Symposium, in which industry specialists from top organizations from Japan and abroad speak about the issues surrounding the latest trends in nanotech. The themes of this year’s Symposium are Life Nanotechnology, Graphene, AI/IoT, Cellulose Nanofibers, and Materials Informatics.

Notable sessions include:

Life Nanotechnology
“Development of microRNA liquid biopsy for early detection of cancer”
Takahiro Ochiya, National Cancer Center Research Institute Division of Molecular and Cellular Medicine, Chief

AI / IoT
“AI Embedded in the Real World”
Hideki Asoh, AIST Deputy Director, Artificial Intelligence Research Center

Cellulose Nanofibers [emphasis mine]
“The Current Trends and Challenges for Industrialization of Nanocellulose”
Satoshi Hirata, Nanocellulose Forum Secretary-General

Materials Informatics
“Perspective of Materials Research”
Hideo Hosono, Tokyo Institute of Technology Professor

View the full list of sessions:
>> http://nanotech2017.icsbizmatch.jp/Presentation/en/Info/List#main_theater

nano tech 2017 Homepage:
>> http://nanotechexpo.jp/

nano tech 2017, the 16th International Nanotechnology Exhibition & Conference
Date: February 15-17, 2017, 10:00-17:00
Venue: Tokyo Big Sight (East Halls 4-6 & Conference Tower)
Organizer: nano tech Executive Committee, JTB Communication Design

As you may have guessed the Alberta information can be found in the .Cellulose Nanofibers session. From the conference/seminar program page; scroll down about 25% of the way to find the Alberta presentation,

Production and Applications Development of Cellulose Nanocrystals (CNC) at InnoTech Alberta

Behzad (Benji) Ahvazi
InnoTech Alberta Team Lead, Cellulose Nanocrystals (CNC)

[ Abstract ]

The production and use of cellulose nanocrystals (CNC) is an emerging technology that has gained considerable interest from a range of industries that are working towards increased use of “green” biobased materials. The construction of one-of-a-kind CNC pilot plant [emphasis mine] at InnoTech Alberta and production of CNC samples represents a critical step for introducing the cellulosic based biomaterials to industrial markets and provides a platform for the development of novel high value and high volume applications. Major key components including feedstock, acid hydrolysis formulation, purification, and drying processes were optimized significantly to reduce the operation cost. Fully characterized CNC samples were provided to a large number of academic and research laboratories including various industries domestically and internationally for applications development.

[ Profile ]

Dr. Ahvazi completed his Bachelor of Science in Honours program at the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry and graduated with distinction at Concordia University in Montréal, Québec. His Ph.D. program was completed in 1998 at McGill Pulp and Paper Research Centre in the area of macromolecules with solid background in Lignocellulosic, organic wood chemistry as well as pulping and paper technology. After completing his post-doctoral fellowship, he joined FPInnovations formally [formerly?] known as PAPRICAN as a research scientist (R&D) focusing on a number of confidential chemical pulping and bleaching projects. In 2006, he worked at Tembec as a senior research scientist and as a Leader in Alcohol and Lignin (R&D). In April 2009, he held a position as a Research Officer in both National Bioproducts (NBP1 & NBP2) and Industrial Biomaterials Flagship programs at National Research Council Canada (NRC). During his tenure, he had directed and performed innovative R&D activities within both programs on extraction, modification, and characterization of biomass as well as polymer synthesis and formulation for industrial applications. Currently, he is working at InnoTech Alberta as Team Lead for Biomass Conversion and Processing Technologies.

Canada scene update

InnoTech Alberta was until Nov. 1, 2016 known as Alberta Innovates – Technology Futures. Here’s more about InnoTech Alberta from the Alberta Innovates … home page,

Effective November 1, 2016, Alberta Innovates – Technology Futures is one of four corporations now consolidated into Alberta Innovates and a wholly owned subsidiary called InnoTech Alberta.

You will find all the existing programs, services and information offered by InnoTech Alberta on this website. To access the basic research funding and commercialization programs previously offered by Alberta Innovates – Technology Futures, explore here. For more information on Alberta Innovates, visit the new Alberta Innovates website.

As for InnoTech Alberta’s “one-of-a-kind CNC pilot plant,” I’d like to know more about it’s one-of-a-kind status since there are two other CNC production plants in Canada. (Is the status a consequence of regional chauvinism or a writer unfamiliar with the topic?). Getting back to the topic, the largest company (and I believe the first) with a CNC plant was CelluForce, which started as a joint venture between Domtar and FPInnovations and powered with some very heavy investment from the government of Canada. (See my July 16, 2010 posting about the construction of the plant in Quebec and my June 6, 2011 posting about the newly named CelluForce.) Interestingly, CelluForce will have a booth at nano tech 2017 (according to its Jan. 27, 2017 news release) although the company doesn’t seem to have any presentations on the schedule. The other Canadian company is Blue Goose Biorefineries in Saskatchewan. Here’s more about Blue Goose from the company website’s home page,

Blue Goose Biorefineries Inc. (Blue Goose) is pleased to introduce our R3TM process. R3TM technology incorporates green chemistry to fractionate renewable plant biomass into high value products.

Traditionally, separating lignocellulosic biomass required high temperatures, harsh chemicals, and complicated processes. R3TM breaks this costly compromise to yield high quality cellulose, lignin and hemicellulose products.

The robust and environmentally friendly R3TM technology has numerous applications. Our current product focus is cellulose nanocrystals (CNC). Cellulose nanocrystals are “Mother Nature’s Building Blocks” possessing unique properties. These unique properties encourage the design of innovative products from a safe, inherently renewable, sustainable, and carbon neutral resource.

Blue Goose assists companies and research groups in the development of applications for CNC, by offering CNC for sale without Intellectual Property restrictions. [emphasis mine]

Bravo to Blue Goose! Unfortunately, I was not able to determine if the company will be at nano tech 2017.

One final comment, there was some excitement about CNC a while back where I had more than one person contact me asking for information about how to buy CNC. I wasn’t able to be helpful because there was, apparently, an attempt by producers to control sales and limit CNC access to a select few for competitive advantage. Coincidentally or not, CelluForce developed a stockpile which has persisted for some years as I noted in my Aug. 17, 2016 posting (scroll down about 70% of the way) where the company announced amongst other events that it expected deplete its stockpile by mid-2017.

Nanotech business news from Turkey and from Northern Ireland

I have two nanotech business news bits, one from Turkey and one from Northern Ireland.

Turkey

A Turkish company has sold one of its microscopes to the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), according to a Jan. 20, 2017 news item on dailysabah.com,

Turkish nanotechnology company Nanomanyetik has begun selling a powerful microscope to the U.S. space agency NASA, the company’s general director told Anadolu Agency on Thursday [Jan. 19, 2017].

Dr. Ahmet Oral, who also teaches physics at Middle East Technical University, said Nanomanyetik developed a microscope that is able to map surfaces on the nanometric and atomic levels, or extremely small particles.

Nanomanyetik’s foreign customers are drawn to the microscope because of its higher quality yet cheaper price compared to its competitors.

“There are almost 30 firms doing this work,” according to Oral. “Ten of them are active and we are among these active firms. Our aim is to be in the top three,” he said, adding that Nanomanyetik jumps to the head of the line because of its after-sell service.

In addition to sales to NASA, the Ankara-based firm exports the microscope to Brazil, Chile, France, Iran, Israel, Italy, Japan, Poland, South Korea and Spain.

Electronics giant Samsung is also a customer.

“Where does Samsung use this product? There are pixels in the smartphones’ displays. These pixels are getting smaller each year. Now the smallest pixel is 15X10 microns,” he said. Human hair is between 10 and 100 microns in diameter.

“They are figuring inner sides of pixels so that these pixels can operate much better. These patterns are on the nanometer level. They are using these microscopes to see the results of their works,” Oral said.

Nanomanyetik’s microscopes produces good quality, high resolution images and can even display an object’s atoms and individual DNA fibers, according to Oral.

You can find the English language version of the Nanomanyetik (NanoMagnetics Instruments) website here . For those with the language skills there is the Turkish language version, here.

Northern Ireland

A Jan. 22, 2017 news article by Dominic Coyle for The Irish Times (Note: Links have been removed) shares this business news and mention of a world first,

MOF Technologies has raised £1.5 million (€1.73 million) from London-based venture capital group Excelsa Ventures and Queen’s University Belfast’s Qubis research commercialisation group.

MOF Technologies chief executive Paschal McCloskey welcomed the Excelsa investment.

Established in part by Qubis in 2012 in partnership with inventor Prof Stuart James, MOF Technologies began life in a lab at the School of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at Queen’s.

Its metal organic framework (MOF) technology is seen as having significant potential in areas including gas storage, carbon capture, transport, drug delivery and heat transformation. Though still in its infancy, the market is forecast to grow to £2.2 billion by 2022, the company says.

MOF Technologies last year became the first company worldwide to successfully commercialise MOFs when it agreed a deal with US fruit and vegetable storage provider Decco Worldwide to commercialise MOFs for use in a food application.

TruPick, designed by Decco and using MOF Technologies’ environmentally friendly technology, enables nanomaterials control the effects of ethylene on fruit produce so it maintains freshness in storage or transport.

MOFs are crystalline, sponge-like materials composed of two components – metal ions and organic molecules known as linkers.

“We very quickly recognised the market potential of MOFs in terms of their unmatched ability for gas storage,” said Moritz Bolle from Excelsa Ventures. “This technology will revolutionise traditional applications and open countless new opportunities for industry. We are confident MOF Technologies is the company that will lead this seismic shift in materials science.

You can find MOF Technologies here.

Panasonic and its next generation makeup mirror

Before leaping to Panasonic’s latest makeup mirror news, here’s an earlier iteration of their product at the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show (CES),

That was posted on Jan. 10, 2016 by Makeup University.

Panasonic has come back in 2017 to hype its “Snow Beauty Mirror,”  a product which builds on its predecessor’s abilities by allowing the mirror to create a makeup look which it then produces for the user. At least, they hope it will—in 2020. From a Jan. 8, 2017 article by Shusuke Murai about the mirror and Japan’s evolving appliances market for The Japan Times,

Panasonic Corp. is developing a “magic” mirror for 2020 that will use nanotechnology for high-definition TVs to offer advice on how to become more beautiful.

The aim of the Snow Beauty Mirror is “to let people become what they want to be,” said Panasonic’s Sachiko Kawaguchi, who is in charge of the product’s development.

“Since 2012 or 2013, many female high school students have taken advantage of blogs and other platforms to spread their own messages,” Kawaguchi said. “Now the trend is that, in this digital era, they change their faces (on a photo) as they like to make them appear as they want to be.”

When one sits in front of the computerized mirror, a camera and sensors start scanning the face to check the skin. It then shines a light to analyze reflection and absorption rates, find flaws like dark spots, wrinkles and large pores, and offer tips on how to improve appearances.

But this is when the real “magic” begins.

Tap print on the results screen and a special printer for the mirror churns out an ultrathin, 100-nanometer makeup-coated patch that is tailor-made for the person examined.

The patch is made of a safe material often used for surgery so it can be directly applied to the face. Once the patch settles, it is barely noticeable and resists falling off unless sprayed with water.

The technologies behind the patch involve Panasonic’s know-how in organic light-emitting diodes (OLED), Kawaguchi said. By using the company’s technology to spray OLED material precisely onto display substrates, the printer connected to the computerized mirror prints a makeup ink that is made of material similar to that used in foundation, she added.

Though the product is still in the early stages of development, Panasonic envisions the mirror allowing users to download their favorite makeups from a database and apply them. It also believes the makeup sheet can be used to cover blemishes and birthmarks.

Before coming up with the smart mirror, Panasonic conducted a survey involving more than 50 middle- to upper-class women from six major Asian cities whose ages ranged from their 20s to 40s about makeup habits and demands.

Some respondents said they were not sure how to care for their skin to make it look its best, while others said they were hesitant to visit makeup counters in department stores.

“As consumer needs are becoming increasingly diverse, the first thing to do is to offer a tailor-made solution to answer each individual’s needs,” Kawaguchi said.

Panasonic aims to introduce the smart mirror and cosmetics sheets at department stores and beauty salons by 2020.

But Kawaguchi said there are many technological and marketing hurdles that must first be overcome — including how to mass-produce the ultrathin sheets.

“We are still at about 30 percent of overall progress,” she said, adding that the company hopes to market the makeup sheet at a price as low as foundation and concealer combined.

“I hope that, by 2020, applying facial sheets will become a major way to do makeup,” she said.

For anyone interested in Japan’s appliances market, please read Murai’s article in its entirety.

Spintronics-based artificial intelligence

Courtesy: Tohoku University

Japanese researchers have managed to mimic a synapse (artificial neural network) with a spintronics-based device according to a Dec. 19, 2016 Tohoku University press release (also on EurekAlert but dated Dec. 20, 2016),

Researchers at Tohoku University have, for the first time, successfully demonstrated the basic operation of spintronics-based artificial intelligence.

Artificial intelligence, which emulates the information processing function of the brain that can quickly execute complex and complicated tasks such as image recognition and weather prediction, has attracted growing attention and has already been partly put to practical use.

The currently-used artificial intelligence works on the conventional framework of semiconductor-based integrated circuit technology. However, this lacks the compactness and low-power feature of the human brain. To overcome this challenge, the implementation of a single solid-state device that plays the role of a synapse is highly promising.

The Tohoku University research group of Professor Hideo Ohno, Professor Shigeo Sato, Professor Yoshihiko Horio, Associate Professor Shunsuke Fukami and Assistant Professor Hisanao Akima developed an artificial neural network in which their recently-developed spintronic devices, comprising micro-scale magnetic material, are employed (Fig. 1). The used spintronic device is capable of memorizing arbitral values between 0 and 1 in an analogue manner unlike the conventional magnetic devices, and thus perform the learning function, which is served by synapses in the brain.

Using the developed network (Fig. 2), the researchers examined an associative memory operation, which is not readily executed by conventional computers. Through the multiple trials, they confirmed that the spintronic devices have a learning ability with which the developed artificial neural network can successfully associate memorized patterns (Fig. 3) from their input noisy versions just like the human brain can.

The proof-of-concept demonstration in this research is expected to open new horizons in artificial intelligence technology – one which is of a compact size, and which simultaneously achieves fast-processing capabilities and ultralow-power consumption. These features should enable the artificial intelligence to be used in a broad range of societal applications such as image/voice recognition, wearable terminals, sensor networks and nursing-care robots.

Here are Fig. 1 and Fig. 2, as mentioned in the press release,

Fig. 1. (a) Optical photograph of a fabricated spintronic device that serves as artificial synapse in the present demonstration. Measurement circuit for the resistance switching is also shown. (b) Measured relation between the resistance of the device and applied current, showing analogue-like resistance variation. (c) Photograph of spintronic device array mounted on a ceramic package, which is used for the developed artificial neural network. Courtesy: Tohoku University

Fig. 2. Block diagram of developed artificial neural network, consisting of PC, FPGA, and array of spintronics (spin-orbit torque; SOT) devices. Courtesy: Tohoku University

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

Analogue spin–orbit torque device for artificial-neural-network-based associative memory operation by William A. Borders, Hisanao Akima1, Shunsuke Fukami, Satoshi Moriya, Shouta Kurihara, Yoshihiko Horio, Shigeo Sato, and Hideo Ohno. Applied Physics Express, Volume 10, Number 1 https://doi.org/10.7567/APEX.10.013007. Published 20 December 2016

© 2017 The Japan Society of Applied Physics

This is an open access paper.

For anyone interested in my other posts on memristors, artificial brains, and artificial intelligence, you can search this blog for those terms  and/or Neuromorphic Engineering in the Categories section.

How does ice melt? Layer by layer!

A Dec. 12, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily announces the answer to a problem scientists have been investigating for over a century but first, here are the questions,

We all know that water melts at 0°C. However, 150 years ago the famous physicist Michael Faraday discovered that at the surface of frozen ice, well below 0°C, a thin film of liquid-like water is present. This thin film makes ice slippery and is crucial for the motion of glaciers.

Since Faraday’s discovery, the properties of this water-like layer have been the research topic of scientists all over the world, which has entailed considerable controversy: at what temperature does the surface become liquid-like? How does the thickness of the layer dependent on temperature? How does the thickness of the layer increases with temperature? Continuously? Stepwise? Experiments to date have generally shown a very thin layer, which continuously grows in thickness up to 45 nm right below the bulk melting point at 0°C. This also illustrates why it has been so challenging to study this layer of liquid-like water on ice: 45 nm is about 1/1000th part of a human hair and is not discernible by eye.

Scientists of the Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research (MPI-P), in a collaboration with researchers from the Netherlands, the USA and Japan, have succeeded to study the properties of this quasi-liquid layer on ice at the molecular level using advanced surface-specific spectroscopy and computer simulations. The results are published in the latest edition of the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS).

Caption: Ice melts as described in the text layer by layer. Credit: © MPIP

A Dec. 12, 2016 Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, goes on to answer the questions,

The team of scientists around Ellen Backus, group leader at MPI-P, investigated how the thin liquid layer is formed on ice, how it grows with increasing temperature, and if it is distinguishable from normal liquid water. These studies required well-defined ice crystal surfaces. Therefore much effort was put into creating ~10 cm large single crystals of ice, which could be cut in such a way that the surface structure was precisely known. To investigate whether the surface was solid or liquid, the team made use of the fact that water molecules in the liquid have a weaker interaction with each other compared to water molecules in ice. Using their interfacial spectroscopy, combined with the controlled heating of the ice crystal, the researchers were able to quantify the change in the interaction between water molecules directly at the interface between ice and air.

The experimental results, combined with the simulations, showed that the first molecular layer at the ice surface has already molten at temperatures as low as -38° C (235 K), the lowest temperature the researchers could experimentally investigate. Increasing the temperature to -16° C (257 K), the second layer becomes liquid. Contrary to popular belief, the surface melting of ice is not a continuous process, but occurs in a discontinuous, layer-by-layer fashion.

“A further important question for us was, whether one could distinguish between the properties of the quasi-liquid layer and those of normal water” says Mischa Bonn, co-author of the paper and director at the MPI-P. And indeed, the quasi-liquid layer at -4° C (269 K) shows a different spectroscopic response than supercooled water at the same temperature; in the quasi-liquid layer, the water molecules seem to interact more strongly than in liquid water.

The results are not only important for a fundamental understanding of ice, but also for climate science, where much research takes place on catalytic reactions on ice surfaces, for which the understanding of the ice surface structure is crucial.

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

Experimental and theoretical evidence for bilayer-by-bilayer surface melting of crystalline ice by M. Alejandra Sánchez, Tanja Kling, Tatsuya Ishiyama, Marc-Jan van Zadel, Patrick J. Bisson, Markus Mezger, Mara N. Jochum, Jenée D. Cyran, Wilbert J. Smit, Huib J. Bakker, Mary Jane Shultz, Akihiro Morita, Davide Donadio, Yuki Nagata, Mischa Bonn, and Ellen H. G. Backus. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, 2016 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1612893114 Published online before print December 12, 2016

This paper appears to be open access.

Trying to push past the 30% energy conversion ceiling for solar cells

A Nov. 21, 2016 news item on Nanowerk describes some work in Japan which suggests that more energy conversion for solar cells is possible,

Solar energy could provide a renewable, sustainable source of power for our daily needs. However, even the most state-of-the-art solar cells struggle to achieve energy conversion efficiency of higher than 30%. While current solar-powered water heaters fare better in terms of energy efficiency, there are still improvements to be made if the systems are to be used more widely.

One potential candidate for inclusion in solar water heaters is “nanofluid,” that is, a liquid containing specially-designed nanoparticles that are capable of absorbing sunlight and transforming it into thermal energy in order to heat water directly.

A Nov. 20, 2016 (Japan) International Center for Materials Nanoarchitectonics (WPI-MANA) press release (received via email), explains further,

Nanoparticle Boost for Solar-powered Water Heating

Now, Satoshi Ishii and his co-workers at the International Center for Materials Nanoarchitectonics (WPI-MANA) and the Japan Science and Technology Agency have developed a new nanofluid containing titanium nitride (TiN) nanoparticles, which demonstrates high efficiency in heating water and generating water vapor.

The team analytically studied the optical absorption efficiency of a TiN nanoparticle and found that it has a broad and strong absorption peak thanks to lossy plasmonic resonances. Surprisingly, the sunlight absorption efficiency of a TiN nanoparticle outperforms that of a carbon nanoparticle and a gold nanoparticle.

They then exposed each nanofluid to sunlight and measured its ability to heat pure water. The TiN nanofluid had the highest water heating properties, stemming from the resonant sunlight absorption. It also generated more vapor than its carbon‒based counterpart. The efficiency of the TiN nanofluid reached nearly 90 %. Crucially, the TiN particles were not consumed during the process, meaning a TiN‒based heating system could essentially be self‒sustaining over time.

TiN nanofluids show great promise in solar heat applications, with high potential for use in everyday appliances such as showers. The new design could even contribute to methods for decontaminating water through vaporization.

90% is a very exiting conversion rate. Of course, now they need to make sure they can achieve those results consistently, get those results outside the laboratory, and scale up to industrial standards.

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

Titanium Nitride Nanoparticles as Plasmonic Solar Heat Transducers by Satoshi Ishii, Ramu Pasupathi Sugavaneshwar, and Tadaaki Nagao. J. Phys. Chem. C, 2016, 120 (4), pp 2343–2348 DOI: 10.1021/acs.jpcc.5b09604 Publication Date (Web): December 21, 2015

Copyright © 2015 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall and it’s almost a year old. I wonder what occasioned the push for publicity.

Discovering why nanoscale gold has catalytic properties

Gold’s glitter may have inspired poets and triggered wars, but its catalytic prowess has helped make chemical reactions greener and more efficient. (Image courtesy of iStock/sbayram) [downloaded from http://www1.lehigh.edu/news/scientists-uncover-secret-gold%E2%80%99s-catalytic-powers

Gold’s glitter may have inspired poets and triggered wars, but its catalytic prowess has helped make chemical reactions greener and more efficient. (Image courtesy of iStock/sbayram) [downloaded from http://www1.lehigh.edu/news/scientists-uncover-secret-gold%E2%80%99s-catalytic-powers

A Sept. 27, 2016 news item on phys.org describes a discovery made by scientists at Lehigh University (US),

Settling a decades-long debate, new research conclusively shows that a hierarchy of active species exists in gold on iron oxide catalysis designed for low temperature carbon monoxide oxidation; Nanoparticles, sub-nanometer clusters and dispersed atoms—as well as how the material is prepared—are all important for determining catalytic activity.

A Sept. 27, 2016 Lehigh University news release by Lori Friedman, which originated the news item, provides more information about the discovery that gold nanoparticles can be used in catalysis and about the discovery of why that’s possible,

Christopher J. Kiely calls the 1982 discovery by Masatake Haruta that gold (Au) possessed a high level of catalytic activity for carbon monoxide (CO) oxidation when deposited on a metal-oxide “a remarkable turn of events in nanotechnology”—remarkable because gold had long been assumed to be inert for catalysis.

Haruta showed that gold dispersed on iron oxide effectively catalyzed the conversion of harmful carbon monoxide into more benign carbon dioxide (CO2) at room temperatures—a reaction that is critical for the construction of fire fighters’ breathing masks and for removal of CO from hydrogen feeds for fuel cells. In fact, today gold catalysts are being exploited in a major way for the greening of many important reactions in the chemical industry, because they can lead to cleaner, more efficient reactions with fewer by-products.

Haruta and Graham J. Hutchings, who co-discovered the use of gold as a catalyst for different reactions, are noted as Thompson Reuters Citation Laureates and appear annually on the ScienceWatch Nobel Prize prediction list. Their pioneering work opened up a new area of scientific inquiry and kicked off a decades-long debate about which type of supported gold species are most effective for the CO oxidation reaction.

In 2008, using electron microscopy technology that was not yet available in the 1980s and ’90 s, Hutchings, the director of the Cardiff Catalysis Institute at Cardiff University worked with Kiely, the Harold B. Chambers Senior Professor Materials Science and Engineering at Lehigh, examined the structure of supported gold at the nanoscale. One nanometer (nm) is equal to one one-billionth of a meter or about the diameter of five atoms.

Using what was then a rare piece of equipment—Lehigh’s aberration-corrected JEOL 2200 FS scanning transmission electron microscope (STEM)—the team identified the co-existence of three distinct gold species: facetted nanoparticles larger than one nanometer in size, sub-clusters containing less than 20 atoms and individual gold atoms strewn over the support. Because only the larger gold nanoparticles had previously been detected, this created debate as to which of these species were responsible for the good catalytic behavior.

Haruta, professor of applied chemistry at Tokyo Metropolitan University, Hutchings and Kiely have been working collaboratively on this problem over recent years and are now the first to demonstrate conclusively that it is not the particles or the individual atoms or the clusters which are solely responsible for the catalysis—but that they all contribute to different degrees. Their results have been published in an article in Nature Communications titled: “Population and hierarchy of active species in gold iron oxide catalysts for carbon monoxide oxidation.”

“All of the species tend to co-exist in conventionally prepared catalysts and show some level of activity,” says Kiely. “They all do something—but some less efficiently than others.”

Their research revealed the sub-nanometer clusters and 1-3nm nanoparticles to be the most efficient for catalyzing this CO oxidation reaction, while larger particles were less so and the atoms even less.  Nevertheless, Kiely cautions, all the species present need to be considered to fully explain the overall measured activity of the catalyst.

Among the team’s other key findings: the measured activity of gold on iron oxide catalysts is exquisitely dependent on exactly how the material is prepared. Very small changes in synthesis parameters  influence the relative proportion and spatial distribution of these various Au species on the support material and thus have a big impact on its overall catalytic performance.

A golden opportunity

Building on their earlier work (published in a 2008 Science article), the team sought to find a robust way to quantitatively analyze the relative population distributions of nanoparticles of various sizes, sub-nm clusters and highly dispersed atoms in a given gold on iron oxide sample. By correlating this information with catalytic performance measurements, they then hoped to determine which species distribution would be optimal to produce the most efficient catalyst, in order to utilize the precious gold component in the most cost effective way.

Ultimately, it was a catalyst synthesis problem the team faced that offered them a golden opportunity to do just that.

During the collaboration, Haruta’s and Hutchings’ teams each prepared gold on iron oxide samples in their home labs in Tokyo and Cardiff. Even though both groups nominally utilized the same ‘co-precipitation’ synthesis method, it turned out that a final heat treatment step was beneficial to the catalytic performance for one set of materials but detrimental to the other. This observation provided a fascinating scientific conundrum that detailed electron microscopy studies performed by Qian He, one of Kiely’s PhD students at the time, was key to solving. Qian He is now a University Research Fellow at Cardiff University leading their electron microscopy effort.

“In the end, there were subtle differences in the order and speed in which each group added in their ingredients while preparing the material,” explains He. “When examined under the electron microscope, it was clear that the two slightly different methods produced quite different distributions of particles, clusters and dispersed atoms on the support.”

“Very small variations in the preparation route or thermal history of the sample can alter the relative balance of supported gold nanoparticles-to-clusters-to-atoms in the material and this manifests itself in the measured catalytic activity,” adds Kiely.

The group was able to compare this set of materials and correlate the Au species distributions with catalytic performance measurements, ultimately identifying the species distribution that was associated with greater catalytic efficiency.

Now that the team has identified the catalytic activity hierarchy associated with these supported gold species, the next step, says Kiely, will be to modify the synthesis method to positively influence that distribution to optimize the catalyst performance while making the most efficient use of the precious gold metal content.

“As a next stage to this study we would like to be able to observe gold on iron oxide materials in-situ within the electron microscope while the reaction is happening,” says Kiely.

Once again, it is next generation microscopy facilities that may hold the key to fulfilling gold’s promise as a pivotal player in green technology.

Despite the link to the paper already in the news release, here’s one that includes a citation,

Identification of Active Gold Nanoclusters on Iron Oxide Supports for CO Oxidation by Andrew A. Herzing, Christopher J. Kiely, Albert F. Carley, Philip Landon, Graham J. Hutchings. Science  05 Sep 2008: Vol. 321, Issue 5894, pp. 1331-1335 DOI: 10.1126/science.1159639

This paper is currently behind a paywall but, if you can wait one year, free access can be gained if you register (for free) with Science.

Panasonic powers up a village in Myanmar with photovoltaics

This story reminded me of an account I read (when I was working in the city’s archives) of Vancouver’s (Canada) West End where residents were advised against going out at night after the sun set because there was no street lighting. And, in those days (19th century) the city was still somewhat forested with bears, foxes, coyotes, and other wild animals being a lot more common that they are today. (Vancouver is a big city but there are coyote warning signs on its beaches and residents of North Vancouver [a nearby municipality] occasionally have awakened to find bears in their backyards.)

Moving onto the true subject of this posting, Myanmar and power, a Sept. 22, 2016 news item on phys.org announced the presence of a new power grid in a village in Myanmar,

Panasonic Corporation provided the Power Supply Station; a stand-alone photovoltaic power package, to the village of Yin Ma Chaung, a Magway Region of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar. The Power Supply Station is installed as part of a CSR [Corporate social responsibility?] effort by the Sustainable Alternative Livelihood Development Project, supported by the Mae Fah Luang Foundation under Royal Patronage (MFL Foundation) of the Kingdom of Thailand. This project was rolled out in partnership with Mitsui & Co., Ltd as one of their CSR activities, and funded by donations to support the mission of the MFL Foundation’s activities.

A Sept. 22, 2016 Panasonic press release, which originated the news item, provides more detail about the power station,

Panasonic’s power supply station consists of solar modules and storage batteries, which enables energy to be created, stored and managed efficiently. The whole system is able to supply electricity to the entire village, relieving approximately 140 households in the non-electrified mountainous village by powering up electrical appliances and lights, which are essential and important in daily lives.

The presence of lightings [sic] in the village makes it possible for villagers to move around during the night, as prior to that; they were unable to do so since the area is inhabited by poisonous snakes. In addition, all the street lights have time-switch LED bulbs that could also make use of limited electricity, efficiently.

In Myanmar, its off-grid areas are said to be at the highest level among the ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] countries, at approximately 68%1 across the nation. In its countryside, the number reaches to an estimate of 84%2 households being unconnected to electricity. To step up on its efforts, Panasonic also installed a refrigerator in the village’s meeting area to store anti-venom drugs. With a well-powered point, the meeting area has thus serves as a center for welfare, entertainment and other purposes.

The whole initiative aimed to provide additional electricity to surrounding villages as well; contributing to the entire Yenan Chuang Township.

Panasonic will continue to develop localized solutions in its bid to provide electricity to off-grid regions and improves the standard of living amongst communities, around the world.

The Power Supply Station is equipped with twelve Panasonic HIT solar modules and can output approximately 3 kW of electricity. It is also equipped with 24 storage batteries (approximately 17 kWh), enabling it to supply stored power.

Features of the Power Supply Station stand-alone photovoltaic power package

(1) Stable quality and performance achieved by production at the factory

The Power Supply Station was developed as a mass produced product to deliver stable quality overseas. The unit for this project was manufactured and its quality was controlled by our Thai subsidiary, Panasonic Eco Solutions Steel (Thailand) Co., Ltd., before delivery to Myanmar.

(2)Simple and quick assembly for portability and expansion

The station is designed to eliminate the need for on-site professional construction work, allowing an electrical contractor to easily and quickly install it.

(3) Utilization of proven Panasonic technologies

The station uses Panasonic HIT 3 solar modules to provide power efficiently, even in restricted spaces. The company’s newly developed power supply main unit acts as the energy management system to monitor the remaining electricity level of the lead-acid storage batteries and controls supply and demand, reducing deterioration of the batteries. This reduces the life-cycle cost and maintenance man-hours for the storage batteries.

There is a video which reminds you of what life could be like without electricity in the context of this Power Supply Station installation,

It’s nice to be reminded of how magical electricity and all its accoutrements are as so many of us with easy access take it all for granted.

Ministry’s new women’s shirt: a technical marvel

It seems there’s another entry into the textile business, a women’s dress shirt made of a technical textile. A Sept. 13, 2016 article by Elizabeth Segran for Fast Company describes this ‘miracle’ piece of apparel,

There are few items of clothing professional women love more than a well-draped silk shirt. They’re the equivalent of men’s well-tailored Oxford shirts: classic, elegant, and versatile enough to look appropriate in almost any business context. But they’re also difficult to maintain: Silk wrinkles easily, doesn’t absorb perspiration, and needs to be dry cleaned.

Boston-based fashion brand Ministry (formerly Ministry of Supply) has heard our lament. …

Ministry gathered …  feedback and spent two years creating a high-performance women’s work shirt as part of its debut womenswear collection, launching today [Sept. 13, 2016]. Until now, the five-year-old company has been focused on creating menswear made with cutting-edge new textiles, but cofounder Gihan Amarasiriwardena explains that when they were developing the womenswear collection, they didn’t just remake their men’s garments in women’s sizes.

Here’s an image of the shirt in black,

[downloaded from http://ministry.co/collections/womens]

[downloaded from http://ministry.co/collections/womens]

Segran’s article mostly extolls its benefits but there is a little technical information,

Their brand-new, aptly named Easier Than Silk Shirt looks and feels like silk, but is actually made from a Japanese technical fabric (i.e., a textile engineered to perform functions, like protecting the wearer from extremely high temperatures). It drapes nicely, wicks moisture, is wrinkle-resistant, and can be thrown in a regular washer and dryer. I tested the shirt on a typical Monday. This meant getting dressed at 7 a.m., taking my baby to a health checkup—where she proceeded to drool on me—wiping myself off for a lunch interview, then heading to a coffee shop to write for several hours before going to a book launch party. By the time I got home that evening and looked in the mirror, the shirt was somehow crease-free and there were no moisture blotches in sight.

When Ministry claims to “engineer a shirt,” it does not mean this in a metaphorical sense. The by [sic] three MIT students, Amarasiriwardena, Aman Advani, and Kit Hickey; the former two were trained as engineers. Every aspect of Ministry’s design process incorporates scientific thinking, from introducing NASA temperature-regulating textile technology into dress shirts to using equipment to test each garment before it hits the market. The Ministry headquarters in Boston is full of machines, including one that pulls at fabric to see how well it is able to recover from being stretched, and computer systems that offer 3D modeling of the human form.

I wonder if Teijin (first mentioned here in a July 19, 2010 posting about their now defunct ‘morphotex’ [based on the nanostructures on a Morpho butterfly’s wing] fabric) is the Japanese company producing Ministry’s technical textile. Ministry’s company website is less focused on the technology than on the retail aspect of their business so if the technical information is there, it’s not immediately obvious.