Tag Archives: Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Just swallow your battery, eh? Ingestible batteries

Christopher Bettinger, Ph.D., is developing an edible battery made with melanin and dissolvable materials. Courtesy of: Bettinger lab

Christopher Bettinger, Ph.D., is developing an edible battery made with melanin and dissolvable materials. Courtesy of: Bettinger lab

An Aug. 23, 2016 news item on phys.org describes a session at the 252nd American Chemical Society (ACS) meeting held Aug. 21 – 25, 2016 in Philadelphia,

Non-toxic, edible batteries could one day power ingestible devices for diagnosing and treating disease. One team reports new progress toward that goal with their batteries made with melanin pigments, naturally found in the skin, hair and eyes.

“For decades, people have been envisioning that one day, we would have edible electronic devices to diagnose or treat disease,” says Christopher Bettinger, Ph.D. “But if you want to take a device every day, you have to think about toxicity issues. That’s when we have to think about biologically derived materials that could replace some of these things you might find in a RadioShack.”

An Aug. 23, 2016 ACS news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, further describes the work featured in the ACS meeting session,

About 20 years ago, scientists did develop a battery-operated ingestible camera as a complementary tool to endoscopies. It can image places in the digestive system that are inaccessible to the traditional endoscope. But it is designed to pass through the body and be excreted. For a single use, the risk that the camera with a conventional battery will get stuck in the gastrointestinal tract is small. But the chances of something going wrong would increase unacceptably if doctors wanted to use it more frequently on a single patient.

The camera and some implantable devices such as pacemakers run on batteries containing toxic components that are sequestered away from contact with the body. But for low-power, repeat applications such as drug-delivery devices that are meant to be swallowed, non-toxic and degradable batteries would be ideal.

“The beauty is that by definition an ingestible, degradable device is in the body for no longer than 20 hours or so,” Bettinger says. “Even if you have marginal performance, which we do, that’s all you need.”

While he doesn’t have to worry about longevity, toxicity is an issue. To minimize the potential harm of future ingestible devices, Bettinger’s team at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) decided to turn to melanins and other naturally occurring compounds. In our skin, hair and eyes, melanins absorb ultraviolet light to quench free radicals and protect us from damage. They also happen to bind and unbind metallic ions. “We thought, this is basically a battery,” Bettinger says.

Building on this idea, the researchers experimented with battery designs that use melanin pigments at either the positive or negative terminals; various electrode materials such as manganese oxide and sodium titanium phosphate; and cations such as copper and iron that the body uses for normal functioning.

“We found basically that they work,” says Hang-Ah Park, Ph.D., a post-doctoral researcher at CMU. “The exact numbers depend on the configuration, but as an example, we can power a 5 milliWatt device for up to 18 hours using 600 milligrams of active melanin material as a cathode.”

Although the capacity of a melanin battery is low relative to lithium-ion, it would be high enough to power an ingestible drug-delivery or sensing device. For example, Bettinger envisions using his group’s battery for sensing gut microbiome changes and responding with a release of medicine, or for delivering bursts of a vaccine over several hours before degrading.

In parallel with the melanin batteries, the team is also making edible batteries with other biomaterials such as pectin, a natural compound from plants used as a gelling agent in jams and jellies. Next, they plan on developing packaging materials that will safely deliver the battery to the stomach.

When these batteries will be incorporated into biomedical devices is uncertain, but Bettinger has already found another application for them. His lab uses the batteries to probe the structure and chemistry of the melanin pigments themselves to better understand how they work.

I previously wrote about an ingestible battery in a November 23, 2015 posting featuring work from MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology).

Self-shading electrochromic windows from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

It’s been a while since I’ve had a story about electrochromic windows and I’ve begun to despair that they will ever reach the marketplace. Happily, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has supplied a ray of light (intentional wordplay). An Aug. 11, 2016 news item on Nanowerk makes the announcement,

A team of researchers at MIT has developed a new way of making windows that can switch from transparent to opaque, potentially saving energy by blocking sunlight on hot days and thus reducing air-conditioning costs. While other systems for causing glass to darken do exist, the new method offers significant advantages by combining rapid response times and low power needs.

Once the glass is switched from clear to dark, or vice versa, the new system requires little to no power to maintain its new state; unlike other materials, it only needs electricity when it’s time to switch back again.

An Aug. 11, 2016 MIT news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, explains the technology in more detail,

The new discovery uses electrochromic materials, which change their color and transparency in response to an applied voltage, Dinca [MIT professor of chemistry Mircea Dinca] explains. These are quite different from photochromic materials, such as those found in some eyeglasses that become darker when the light gets brighter. Such materials tend to have much slower response times and to undergo a smaller change in their levels of opacity.

Existing electrochromic materials suffer from similar limitations and have found only niche applications. For example, Boeing 787 aircraft have electrochromic windows that get darker to prevent bright sunlight from glaring through the cabin. The windows can be darkened by turning on the voltage, Dinca says, but “when you flip the switch, it actually takes a few minutes for the window to turn dark. Obviously, you want that to be faster.”

The reason for that slowness is that the changes within the material rely on a movement of electrons — an electric current — that gives the whole window a negative charge. Positive ions then move through the material to restore the electrical balance, creating the color-changing effect. But while electrons flow rapidly through materials, ions move much more slowly, limiting the overall reaction speed.

The MIT team overcame that by using sponge-like materials called metal-organic frameworks (MOFs), which can conduct both electrons and ions at very high speeds. Such materials have been used for about 20 years for their ability to store gases within their structure, but the MIT team was the first to harness them for their electrical and optical properties.

The other problem with existing versions of self-shading materials, Dinca says, is that “it’s hard to get a material that changes from completely transparent to, let’s say, completely black.” Even the windows in the 787 can only change to a dark shade of green, rather than becoming opaque.

In previous research on MOFs, Dinca and his students had made material that could turn from clear to shades of blue or green, but in this newly reported work they have achieved the long-sought goal of producing a coating that can go all the way from perfectly clear to nearly black (achieved by blending two complementary colors, green and red). The new material is made by combining two chemical compounds, an organic material and a metal salt. Once mixed, these self-assemble into a thin film of the switchable material.

“It’s this combination of these two, of a relatively fast switching time and a nearly black color, that has really got people excited,” Dinca says.

The new windows have the potential, he says, to do much more than just preventing glare. “These could lead to pretty significant energy savings,” he says, by drastically reducing the need for air conditioning in buildings with many windows in hot climates. “You could just flip a switch when the sun shines through the window, and turn it dark,” or even automatically make that whole side of the building go dark all at once, he says.

While the properties of the material have now been demonstrated in a laboratory setting, the team’s next step is to make a small-scale device for further testing: a 1-inch-square sample, to demonstrate the principle in action for potential investors in the technology, and to help determine what the manufacturing costs for such windows would be.

Further testing is also needed, Dinca says, to demonstrate what they have determined from preliminary testing: that once the switch is flipped and the material changes color, it requires no further power to maintain its new state. No extra power is needed until the switch is flipped to turn the material back to its former state, whether clear or opaque. Many existing electrochromic materials, by contrast, require a continuous voltage input.

In addition to smart windows, Dinca says, the material could also be used for some kinds of low-power displays, similar to displays like electronic ink (used in devices such as the Kindle and based on MIT-developed technology) but based on a completely different approach.

Not surprisingly perhaps, the research was partly funded by an organization in a region where such light-blocking windows would be particularly useful: The Masdar Institute, based in the United Arab Emirates, through a cooperative agreement with MIT. The research also received support from the U.S. Department of Energy, through the Center for Excitonics, an Energy Frontier Center.

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

Transparent-to-Dark Electrochromic Behavior in Naphthalene-Diimide-Based Mesoporous MOF-74 Analogs by Khalid AlKaabi, Casey R. Wade, Mircea Dincă. Chem, Volume 1, Issue 2, 11 August 2016, Pages 264–272 doi:10.1016/j.chempr.2016.06.013

This paper is behind a paywall.

For those curious about the windows, there’s this .gif from MIT,

MIT_ElectrochromicWindows

Movies and science, science, science (Part 2 of 2)

Part 1 concerned the soon-to-be-released movie, Hidden Figures and a film which has yet to start production, Photograph 51 (about Rosalind Franklin and the discovery of the double helix structure DNA [deoxyribonucleic acid]). Now for Part 2:

A matter of blood, Theranos, and Elizabeth Holmes

A few months ago, a friend asked me if I’d heard of Theranos. Given that I have featured various kinds of cutting edge diagnostic tests here, it was a fair enough question. Some  of my first questions to her were about the science. My friend had read about the situation in The Economist where the focus of the story (which I later read) was about venture capital. I got back to my friend and said that if they hadn’t published any scientific papers, I most likely would not have stumbled across them. Since then I’ve heard much more about Theranos but it seems there’s not much scientific information to be had from the company.

Reportedly, US film star Jennifer Lawrence is set to star, from a June 10, 2016 posting by Lainey (at Lainey Gossip; Note: A link has been removed),

Deadline reported yesterday [June 9, 2016] that Jennifer Lawrence will star in Adam McKay’s upcoming film about Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos. Elizabeth Holmes was basically the Jennifer Lawrence of Silicon Valley after inventing what she claimed to be a revolutionary blood testing system. Instead of submitting full vials of blood for limited testing, her product promised more efficiency and quicker results with just a pinprick. You can imagine how that would change the health care industry.

Last year, The Wall Street Journal investigated the viability of Theranos’s business plan, exposing major problems in the company’s infrastructure. Elizabeth Holmes went from being called the world’s youngest self-made female billionaire, the millennial in a turtleneck, to a possible fraud. It’s a fascinating story. …

In a July 16, 2016 article The Economist provides an update to the evolving Theranos/Holmes story,

FIRST they think you’re crazy, then they fight you, and then all of the sudden you change the world,” said Elizabeth Holmes as troubles mounted for her blood-testing startup, Theranos, last year. Things look ever less likely to go beyond the fighting stage.

On July 7th [2016] a government regulator, the Centres for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said Ms Holmes would be barred from owning or running a laboratory for two years. It will also revoke her company’s licence to operate one of two laboratories where it conducts tests. As The Economist went to press the firm was due to reply to a letter from Congress, which asked how, exactly, Theranos is going to handle the tens of thousands of patients who were given incorrect test results. Even so, Ms Holmes looks set to remain in position even as the situation deteriorates around a firm that once commanded a multi-billion-dollar valuation.

These may be some of the last twists in a story which will be turned into a Hollywood film by the director of “The Big Short”.

For anyone wondering how a movie could be made when the story has come to any kind of resolution, there’s this from a June 24, 2016 posting by David Bruggeman for his Pasco Phronesis blog (Note: Links have been removed),

Since last I wrote about a possible film about the medical device/testing company Theranos, a studio has successfully bid on the project.  Legendary Studios won an auction on the film rights, beating out 9 other offers on the project, which has Jennifer Lawrence attached to star as Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes.  Adam McKay would write the script and direct the project, duplicating his roles on the Oscar-nominated film The Big Short.  The film now has a preliminary title of Bad Blood.  It is certainly too early to tell if the Taylor Swift song of the same name will be used in the movie.

While getting a studio offer is important to the film getting produced, what is perhaps as interesting to our readers is that a book is connected to the film deal.  Two-time Pulitzer-prize winning writer John Carreyrou, who has written extensively on Theranos in The Wall Street Journal, will be writing a book that (presumably) serves as the basis for the script.  This follows the development arc for The Big Short, for which McKay shares an Adapted Screenplay Oscar (in addition to his nomination for directing the film)

So, are they going to wait until Holmes is either finally vindicated or vilified before going to film? Meanwhile, Holmes continues in a quest to save her company (from an Aug. 1, 2016 article for Fast Company by Christina Farr titled: Scientists Wanted Transparency From Theranos, But Got A Product Launch Instead (Note: A link has been removed),

Theranos once promised to revolutionize the blood testing industry. But its methodology remains secretive, despite calls for transparency from the scientific community. Now, it is facing federal investigations, private litigation, voided tests, and its CEO, Elizabeth Holmes, is banned from operating a lab for two years.

But all that was entirely glossed over today at the company’s much-awaited first presentation to the scientific community at the American Association for Clinical Chemistry’s conference in Philadelphia.

In an hour-long presentation (you can review the slides here), Holmes failed to discuss the fate of the company’s proprietary blood-testing technology, Edison, or address any of the controversy. Instead, she skipped right to pitching a new product, dubbed the MiniLab.

In fairness to Theranos, this was a positive step as the company did provide some internal data to show that the company could perform a small number of tests. But despite that, many took to social media to protest its failure to address and acknowledge its shortcomings before moving on to a new product.

“Clearly, the scientific and medical community was hoping for a data-driven discussion today, and instead got a new product announcement,” says John Torous, a psychiatrist and clinical informatics fellow at Harvard Medical School.

In an emailed response to Fast Company, a Theranos company spokesperson did not say whether components of Edison would be used in the miniLAB, but instead stressed that it’s one early iteration of the technology. “The miniLab is the latest iteration of the company’s testing platform and an evolution of Theranos’ technology,” they said.

Farr describes the MiniLab and notes that it is entering a competitive market,

The new product, the MiniLab, essentially takes equipment used in a standard lab and puts it in a single box. Holmes refers to this technique as “decentralizing the lab,” as in theory, clinicians could use this as an alternative to sending samples to a centralized facility and awaiting results. “Think of it as being a huge diagnostics lab that has been condensed down to the size of a microwave,” the company’s website explains.

..

But scientists are questioning whether the MiniLab technology is a breakthrough. The current market is already fairly saturated: Abbott’s iStat system, for instance, is a handheld device for clinicians to test patients for a plethora of common tests. Roche just received FDA [US Food and Drug Administration] clearance for its Cobas device, which can test for ailments like the flu and some strep infections in under 20 minutes. And Theranos competitors Quest and Labcorp already operate versions of this type of equipment in their own labs.

“I can’t imagine why they’re wasting their time,” says MIT-trained material scientist and biotech entrepreneur Kaveh Milaninia by phone. …

I recommend reading Farr’s article in its entirety as she provides more detail and analysis as to just how competitive the market Theranos proposes entering with its MiniLab actually is.

An Aug. 31, 2016 article by Lydia Ramsey for Slate.com the most recent update on the Theranos situation,

Theranos is withdrawing its bid for FDA approval of a diagnostic test for Zika that they announced earlier in August, according to a story in the Wall Street Journal.

Theranos confirmed to Business Insider that the test has been withdrawn, but said the company has plans to resubmit it.

John Carreyrou and Christopher Weaver report that an FDA inspection found that, as part of a study to validate the new test, the company had collected some data without a patient safety plan in place that was approved by an institutional review board.

“We hope that our decision to withdraw the Zika submission voluntarily is further evidence of our commitment to engage positively with the agency. We are confident in the Zika tests and will resubmit it,” Theranos vice president of regulatory and quality Dave Wurtz said in a statement emailed to Business Insider. Wurtz joined the company in July [2016].

Getting back to the point of my story at the beginning of this piece, it seems that Theranos and Elizabeth Holmes have not been as forthcoming with scientific data as is common in the biotech field. Interestingly, I read somewhere that the top 10 venture capitalists in the biotech field had not invested a penny in Theranos. The money had come from venture capitalists expert in other fields. (If you can confirm or know differently, please let me know in the comments section.)

In its favour, the company does appear to be attempting to address its shortcomings.

In any event, all these goings on should make for an interesting script writing challenge.

Bits and bobs of science and movies (The Man Who Knew Infinity, Ghostbusters, and Imagine Science Films)

The Man Who Knew Infinity had its debut at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival. I haven’t seen it at any movie houses here (Vancouver, Canada) yet but a film trailer featuring its star, Dev Patel, was released in Feb. 2016,

Ramanujan must have been quite the mathematician, given the tenor of the times. Here’s more about the movie from its Wikipedia entry (Note: Links have been removed),

The Man Who Knew Infinity is a 2015 British biographical drama film based on the 1991 book of the same name by Robert Kanigel. The film stars Dev Patel as the real-life Srinivasa Ramanujan, a mathematician who after growing up poor in Madras, India, earns admittance to Cambridge University during World War I, where he becomes a pioneer in mathematical theories with the guidance of his professor, G. H. Hardy (played by Jeremy Irons despite Hardy being only 10 years older than Ramanujan).

Filming began in August 2014 at Trinity College, Cambridge.[4] The film had its world premiere as a gala presentation at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival,[1][5] and was selected as the opening gala of the 2015 Zurich Film Festival.[6] It also played other film festivals including Singapore International Film Festival[7] and Dubai International Film Festival.[8]

Distinguished mathematicians Manjul Bhargava and Ken Ono are Associate Producers of the film.[9] Ono, the mathematics consultant, is a Guggenheim Fellow, and Bhargava is a winner of the Fields Medal.

Next up, Ghostbusters, the all woman edition. While it hasn’t become the blockbuster some were hoping for, I have some hope that it will become a quiet blockbuster over time. As I wait there is this information about how Ghostbuster: The All Woman Edition was grounded in real science. From a July 18, 2016 news item on phys.org,

Janet Conrad and Lindley Winslow, colleagues in the MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] Department of Physics and researchers in MIT’s Lab for Nuclear Science, were key consultants for the all-female reboot of the classic 1984 supernatural comedy that is opening in theaters today. And the creative side of the STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—will be on full display.

A July 16, 2016 MIT news release, which originated the news item expands on the theme (Note: Links have been removed),

Kristin Wiig’s character, Erin Gilbert, a no-nonsense physicist at Columbia University, is all the more convincing because of Conrad’s toys. Her office features demos and other actual trappings from Conrad’s workspace: books, posters, and scientific models. She even created detailed academic papers and grant applications for use as desk props.

“I loved the original ‘Ghostbusters,’” says Conrad. “And I thought the switch to four women, the girl-power concept, was a great way to change it up for the reboot. Plus I love all of the stuff in my office. I was happy to have my books become stars.”

Conrad developed an affection for MIT while absorbing another piece of pop culture: “Doonesbury.” She remembers one cartoon strip featuring a girl doing Psets. She is discouraged until a robot comes to her door and beeps. All is right with the world again. The exchange made an impression. “Only at MIT do robots come by your door to cheer you up,” she thought.

Like her colleague, Winslow describes mainstream role models as powerful, particularly when fantasy elements in film and television enhance their childhood appeal. She, too, loved “Ghostbusters” as a kid. “I watched the original many times,” she recalls. “And my sister had a stuffed Slimer.”

Winslow jokes that she “probably put in too much time” helping with the remake. Indeed, Wired magazine recently detailed that: “In one scene in the movie, Wiig’s Gilbert stands in front of a lecture hall, speaking on challenges of reconciling quantum mechanics with Einstein’s gravity. On the whiteboards, behind her, a series of equations tells the same story: a self-contained narrative, written by Winslow and later transcribed on set, illustrating the failure of a once-promising physics theory called SU(5).”

Movie reviewers have been floored by the level of set detail. Also deserving of serious credit is James Maxwell, a postdoc at the Lab for Nuclear Science during the period he worked on “Ghostbusters.” He is now a staff scientist at Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Newport News, Virginia.

Maxwell crafted realistic schematics of how proton packs, ghost traps, and other paranormal equipment might work. “I recalled myself as a kid, poring over the technical schematics of X-wings and Star Destroyers. I wanted to be sure that boys and especially girls of today could pore over my schematics, plug the components into Wikipedia, and find out about real tools that experimental physicists use to study the workings of the universe.”

He too hopes this behind-the-scenes MIT link with a Hollywood blockbuster will get people thinking. “I hope that it shows a little bit of the giddy side of science and of MIT; the laughs that can come with a spectacular experimental failure or an unexpected break-through.”

The movie depicts the worlds of science and engineering, as drawn from MIT, with remarkable conviction, says Maxwell. “So much of the feel of the movie, and to a great degree the personalities of the characters, is conveyed by the props,” he says.

Kate McKinnon’s character, Jillian Holtzmann, an eccentric engineer, is nearly inseparable from, as Maxwell says, “a mess of wires and magnets and lasers” — a pile of equipment replicated from his MIT lab. When she talks proton packs, her lines are drawn from his work.

Keep an eye out for treasures hidden in the props. For instance, Wiig’s character is the recipient of the Maria Goeppert Mayer “MGM Award” from the American Physical Society, which hangs on her office wall. Conrad and Winslow say the honor holds a special place in their hearts.

“We both think MGM was inspirational. She did amazing things at a time when it was tough for women to do anything in physics,” says Conrad. “She is one of our favorite women in physics,” adds Winslow. Clearly, some of the film’s props and scientific details reflect their personal predilections but Hollywood — and the nation — is also getting a real taste of MIT.

Finally and strictly speaking not a movie but it is an online magazine about science-based movies according to David Bruggeman’s Aug. 6, 2016 posting on his Pasco Phronesis blog (Note: Links have been removed),

LaboCine is an online film magazine from the people behind Imagine Science Films.  The films in each issue come from artists and scientists from around the world.  They are not restricted to documentary films, and mix live-action, animated and computer film styles.

The first issue of LaboCine is now online, so you can view the short films, which are organized around a common theme.  For August the theme is Model Organisms. …

You find the LaboCine magazine here and Imagine Science Films here. Btw, Raewyn Turner (NZ artist) has submitted our filmpoem, Steep (1) : A digital poetry of gold nanoparticles to the 9th Imagine Science Festival to be held Oct. 14-21, 2016 in New York City.

And that is it!

Here’s Part 1 for those who missed it.

Movies and science, science, science (Part 1 of 2)

In the last few years, there’s been a veritable plethora of movies (and television shows in Canada and the US) that are about science and technology or have a significant  component or investigate the social impact. The trend does not seem to be slowing.

This first of two parts features the film, *Hidden* Figures, and a play being turned into a film, Photograph 51. The second part features the evolving Theranos story and plans to turn it into a film, The Man Who Knew Infinity, a film about an Indian mathematician, the science of the recent all woman Ghostbusters, and an ezine devoted to science films.

For the following movie tidbits, I have David Bruggeman to thank.

Hidden Figures

From David’s June 21, 2016 post on his Pasco Phronesis blog (Note: A link has been removed),

Hidden Figures is a fictionalized treatment of the book of the same name written by Margot Lee Shetterly (and underwritten by the Sloan Foundation).  Neither the book nor the film are released yet.  The book is scheduled for a September release, and the film currently has a January release date in the U.S.

Both the film and the book focus on the story of African American women who worked as computers for the government at the Langley National Aeronautic Laboratory in Hampton, Virginia.  The women served as human computers, making the calculations NASA needed during the Space Race.  While the book features four women, the film is focused on three: Katherine Johnson (recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom), Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson.  They are played by, respectively, Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae.  Other actors in the film include Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Aldis Hodge, and Jim Parsons.  The film is directed by Theodore Melfi, and the script is by Allison Schroeder.

According to imdb.com, the movie’s release date is Dec. 25, 2016 (this could change again).

The history for ‘human computers’ stretches back to the 17th century, at least. From the Human Computer entry in Wikipedia (Note: Links have been removed),

The term “computer”, in use from the early 17th century (the first known written reference dates from 1613),[1] meant “one who computes”: a person performing mathematical calculations, before electronic computers became commercially available. “The human computer is supposed to be following fixed rules; he has no authority to deviate from them in any detail.” (Turing, 1950) Teams of people were frequently used to undertake long and often tedious calculations; the work was divided so that this could be done in parallel.

Prior to NASA, a team of women in the 19th century in the US were known as Harvard Computers (from the Wikipedia entry; Note: Links have been removed),

Edward Charles Pickering (director of the Harvard Observatory from 1877 to 1919) decided to hire women as skilled workers to process astronomical data. Among these women were Williamina Fleming, Annie Jump Cannon, Henrietta Swan Leavitt and Antonia Maury. This staff came to be known as “Pickering’s Harem” or, more respectfully, as the Harvard Computers.[1] This was an example of what has been identified as the “harem effect” in the history and sociology of science.

It seems that several factors contributed to Pickering’s decision to hire women instead of men. Among them was the fact that men were paid much more than women, so he could employ more staff with the same budget. This was relevant in a time when the amount of astronomical data was surpassing the capacity of the Observatories to process it.[2]

The first woman hired was Williamina Fleming, who was working as a maid for Pickering. It seems that Pickering was increasingly frustrated with his male assistants and declared that even his maid could do a better job. Apparently he was not mistaken, as Fleming undertook her assigned chores efficiently. When the Harvard Observatory received in 1886 a generous donation from the widow of Henry Draper, Pickering decided to hire more female staff and put Fleming in charge of them.[3]

While it’s not thrilling to find out that Pickering was content to exploit the women he was hiring, he deserves kudos for recognizing that women could do excellent work and acting on that recognition. When you consider the times, Pickering’s was an extraordinary act.

Getting back to Hidden Figures, an Aug.15, 2016 posting by Kathleen for Lainey Gossip celebrates the then newly released trailer for the movie,

If you’ve been watching the Olympics [Rio 2016], you know how much the past 10 days have been an epic display of #BlackGirlMagic. Fittingly, the trailer for Hidden Figures was released last night during Sunday’s Olympic coverage. It’s the story of three brilliant African American women, played by Taraji P Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae, who made history by serving as the brains behind the NASA launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit in 1962.

Three black women helped launch a dude into space in the 60s. AT NASA. Think about how America treated black women in the 60s. As Katherine Johnson, played by Taraji P Henson, jokes in the trailer, they were still sitting at the back of the bus. In 1962 Malcolm X said, “The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman, the most unprotected person in America is the Black woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman.” These women had to face that truth every day and they still rose to greatness. I’m obsessed with this story.

Overall, the trailer is good. I like the pace and the performances look strong. …

I’m most excited for Hidden Figures (as Lainey pointed out, this title is THE WORST) because black girls are being celebrated for their brains on screen. That is rare. When the trailer aired, my brother Sam texted me, “WHOA, a smart black girl movie!”

*ETA Sept. 5, 2016: Aran Shetterly contacted me to say this:

What you may not know is that the term “Hidden Figures” is a specific reference to flight science. It tested a pilot’s ability to pick out a simple figure from a set of more complex, difficult to see images. http://www.militaryaptitudetests.com/afoqt/

Thank you Mr. Shetterly!

Photograph 51 (the Rosalind Franklin story)

Also in David’s June 21, 2016 post is a mention of Photograph 51, a play and soon-to-be film about Rosalind Franklin, the discovery of the double helix, and a science controversy. I first wrote about Photograph 51 in a Jan. 16, 2012 posting (scroll down about 50% of the way) regarding an international script writing competition being held in Dublin, Ireland. At the time, I noted that Anna Ziegler’s play, Photograph 51 had won a previous competition cycle of the screenwriting competition. I wrote again about the play in a Sept. 2, 2015 posting about its London production (Sept. 5 – Nov. 21, 2015) featuring actress Nicole Kidman.

The versions of the Franklin story with which I’m familiar paint her as the wronged party, ignored and unacknowledged by the scientists (Francis, Crick, James Watson, and Maurice Wilkins) who got all the glory and the Nobel Prize. Stephen Curry in a Sept. 16, 2015 posting on the Guardian science blogs suggests the story may not be quite as simple as that (Note: A link has been removed),

Ziegler [Anna Ziegler, playwright] is up front in admitting that she has rearranged facts to suit the drama. This creates some oddities of chronology and motive for those familiar with the history. I know of no suggestion of romantic interest in Franklin from Wilkins, or of a separation of Crick from his wife in the aftermath of his triumph with Watson in solving the DNA structure. There is no mention in the play of the fact that Franklin published her work (and the famous photograph 51) in the journal Nature alongside Watson and Crick’s paper and one by Wilkins. Nor does the audience hear of the international recognition that Franklin enjoyed in her own right between 1953 and her untimely death in 1958, not just for her involvement in DNA, but also for her work on the structure of coal and of viruses.

Published long after her death, The Double Helix is widely thought to treat Franklin unfairly. In the minds of many she remains the wronged woman whose pioneering results were taken by others to solve DNA and win the Nobel prize. But the real story – many elements of which come across strongly in the play – is more complex*.

Franklin is a gifted experimentalist. Her key contributions to the discovery were in improving methods for taking X-ray pictures of and discovering the distinct A and B conformations of DNA. But it becomes clear that her methodical, meticulous approach to data analysis – much to Wilkins’ impotent frustration – eventually allows the Kings ‘team’ to be overtaken by the bolder, intuitive stratagem of Watson and Crick.

Curry’s piece is a good read and provides insight into the ways temperament affects how science is practiced.

Interestingly, there was a 1987 dramatization of the ‘double helix or life story’ (from the Life Story entry on Wikipedia; Note: Links have been removed),

The film tells the story of the rivalries of the two teams of scientists attempting to discover the structure of DNA. Francis Crick and James D. Watson at Cambridge University and Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin at King’s College London.

The film manages to convey the loneliness and competitiveness of scientific research but also educates the viewer as to how the structure of DNA was discovered. In particular, it explores the tension between the patient, dedicated laboratory work of Franklin and the sometimes uninformed intuitive leaps of Watson and Crick, all played against a background of institutional turf wars, personality conflicts and sexism. In the film Watson jokes, plugging the path of intuition: “Blessed are they who believed before there was any evidence.” The film also shows why Watson and Crick made their discovery, overtaking their competitors in part by reasoning from genetic function to predict chemical structure, thus helping to establish the then still-nascent field of molecular biology.

You can find out more about the stars, crew, and cast here on imdb.com

In addition to Life Story, the dramatization is also sometimes titled as ‘The Race for the Double Helix’ or the ‘Double Helix’.

Getting back to Photograph 51 (the film), Michael Grandage who directed the stage play will also direct the film. Grandage just made his debut as a film director with ‘Genius’ starring Colin Firth and Jude Law. According to this June 23, 2016 review by Sarah on Laineygossip.com, he stumbled a bit by casting British and Australian actors as Americans,

The first hurdle to clear with Genius, the feature film debut of English theater director Michael Grandage, is that everyone is played by Brits and Aussies, and by “everyone” I mean some of the most towering figures of American literature. You cast the best actor for the role and a good actor can convince you they’re anyone, so it shouldn’t really matter, but there is something profoundly odd about watching a parade of Lit 101 All Stars appear on screen and struggle with American accents. …

That kind of casting should not be a problem with Photograph 51 where the action takes place with British personalities.

Part 2 is here.

*’Human’ corrected to ‘Hidden’ on Sept. 5, 2016.

Sutures that can gather data wirelessly

Are sutures which gather data hackable? It’s a little early to start thinking about that issue as this seems to be brand new research. A July 18, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily tells more,

For the first time, researchers led by Tufts University engineers have integrated nano-scale sensors, electronics and microfluidics into threads — ranging from simple cotton to sophisticated synthetics — that can be sutured through multiple layers of tissue to gather diagnostic data wirelessly in real time, according to a paper published online July 18 [2016] in Microsystems & Nanoengineering. The research suggests that the thread-based diagnostic platform could be an effective substrate for a new generation of implantable diagnostic devices and smart wearable systems.

A July 18, 2016 Tufts University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail,

The researchers used a variety of conductive threads that were dipped in physical and chemical sensing compounds and connected to wireless electronic circuitry to create a flexible platform that they sutured into tissue in rats as well as in vitro. The threads collected data on tissue health (e.g. pressure, stress, strain and temperature), pH and glucose levels that can be used to determine such things as how a wound is healing, whether infection is emerging, or whether the body’s chemistry is out of balance. The results were transmitted wirelessly to a cell phone and computer.

The three-dimensional platform is able to conform to complex structures such as organs, wounds or orthopedic implants.

While more study is needed in a number of areas, including investigation of long-term biocompatibility, researchers said initial results raise the possibility of optimizing patient-specific treatments.

“The ability to suture a thread-based diagnostic device intimately in a tissue or organ environment in three dimensions adds a unique feature that is not available with other flexible diagnostic platforms,” said Sameer Sonkusale, Ph.D., corresponding author on the paper and director of the interdisciplinary Nano Lab in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Tufts School of Engineering. “We think thread-based devices could potentially be used as smart sutures for surgical implants, smart bandages to monitor wound healing, or integrated with textile or fabric as personalized health monitors and point-of-care diagnostics.”

Until now, the structure of substrates for implantable devices has essentially been two-dimensional, limiting their usefulness to flat tissue such as skin, according to the paper. Additionally, the materials in those substrates are expensive and require specialized processing.

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

A toolkit of thread-based microfluidics, sensors, and electronics for 3D tissue embedding for medical diagnostics by Pooria Mostafalu, Mohsen Akbari, Kyle A. Alberti, Qiaobing Xu, Ali Khademhosseini, & Sameer R. Sonkusale. Microsystems & Nanoengineering 2, Article number: 16039 (2016) doi:10.1038/micronano.2016.39 Published online 18 July 2016

This paper is open access.

Wireless, wearable carbon nanotube-based gas sensors for soldiers

Researchers at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) are hoping to make wireless, toxic gas detectors the size of badges. From a June 30, 2016 news item on Nanowerk,

MIT researchers have developed low-cost chemical sensors, made from chemically altered carbon nanotubes, that enable smartphones or other wireless devices to detect trace amounts of toxic gases.

Using the sensors, the researchers hope to design lightweight, inexpensive radio-frequency identification (RFID) badges to be used for personal safety and security. Such badges could be worn by soldiers on the battlefield to rapidly detect the presence of chemical weapons — such as nerve gas or choking agents — and by people who work around hazardous chemicals prone to leakage.

A June 30, 2016 MIT news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the technology further,

“Soldiers have all this extra equipment that ends up weighing way too much and they can’t sustain it,” says Timothy Swager, the John D. MacArthur Professor of Chemistry and lead author on a paper describing the sensors that was published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society. “We have something that would weigh less than a credit card. And [soldiers] already have wireless technologies with them, so it’s something that can be readily integrated into a soldier’s uniform that can give them a protective capacity.”

The sensor is a circuit loaded with carbon nanotubes, which are normally highly conductive but have been wrapped in an insulating material that keeps them in a highly resistive state. When exposed to certain toxic gases, the insulating material breaks apart, and the nanotubes become significantly more conductive. This sends a signal that’s readable by a smartphone with near-field communication (NFC) technology, which allows devices to transmit data over short distances.

The sensors are sensitive enough to detect less than 10 parts per million of target toxic gases in about five seconds. “We are matching what you could do with benchtop laboratory equipment, such as gas chromatographs and spectrometers, that is far more expensive and requires skilled operators to use,” Swager says.

Moreover, the sensors each cost about a nickel to make; roughly 4 million can be made from about 1 gram of the carbon nanotube materials. “You really can’t make anything cheaper,” Swager says. “That’s a way of getting distributed sensing into many people’s hands.”

The paper’s other co-authors are from Swager’s lab: Shinsuke Ishihara, a postdoc who is also a member of the International Center for Materials Nanoarchitectonics at the National Institute for Materials Science, in Japan; and PhD students Joseph Azzarelli and Markrete Krikorian.

Wrapping nanotubes

In recent years, Swager’s lab has developed other inexpensive, wireless sensors, called chemiresistors, that have detected spoiled meat and the ripeness of fruit, among other things [go to the end of this post for links to previous posts about Swager’s work]. All are designed similarly, with carbon nanotubes that are chemically modified, so their ability to carry an electric current changes when exposed to a target chemical.

This time, the researchers designed sensors highly sensitive to “electrophilic,” or electron-loving, chemical substances, which are often toxic and used for chemical weapons.

To do so, they created a new type of metallo-supramolecular polymer, a material made of metals binding to polymer chains. The polymer acts as an insulation, wrapping around each of the sensor’s tens of thousands of single-walled carbon nanotubes, separating them and keeping them highly resistant to electricity. But electrophilic substances trigger the polymer to disassemble, allowing the carbon nanotubes to once again come together, which leads to an increase in conductivity.

In their study, the researchers drop-cast the nanotube/polymer material onto gold electrodes, and exposed the electrodes to diethyl chlorophosphate, a skin irritant and reactive simulant of nerve gas. Using a device that measures electric current, they observed a 2,000 percent increase in electrical conductivity after five seconds of exposure. Similar conductivity increases were observed for trace amounts of numerous other electrophilic substances, such as thionyl chloride (SOCl2), a reactive simulant in choking agents. Conductivity was significantly lower in response to common volatile organic compounds, and exposure to most nontarget chemicals actually increased resistivity.

Creating the polymer was a delicate balancing act but critical to the design, Swager says. As a polymer, the material needs to hold the carbon nanotubes apart. But as it disassembles, its individual monomers need to interact more weakly, letting the nanotubes regroup. “We hit this sweet spot where it only works when it’s all hooked together,” Swager says.

Resistance is readable

To build their wireless system, the researchers created an NFC tag that turns on when its electrical resistance dips below a certain threshold.

Smartphones send out short pulses of electromagnetic fields that resonate with an NFC tag at radio frequency, inducing an electric current, which relays information to the phone. But smartphones can’t resonate with tags that have a resistance higher than 1 ohm.

The researchers applied their nanotube/polymer material to the NFC tag’s antenna. When exposed to 10 parts per million of SOCl2 for five seconds, the material’s resistance dropped to the point that the smartphone could ping the tag. Basically, it’s an “on/off indicator” to determine if toxic gas is present, Swager says.

According to the researchers, such a wireless system could be used to detect leaks in Li-SOCl2 (lithium thionyl chloride) batteries, which are used in medical instruments, fire alarms, and military systems.

The next step, Swager says, is to test the sensors on live chemical agents, outside of the lab, which are more dispersed and harder to detect, especially at trace levels. In the future, there’s also hope for developing a mobile app that could make more sophisticated measurements of the signal strength of an NFC tag: Differences in the signal will mean higher or lower concentrations of a toxic gas. “But creating new cell phone apps is a little beyond us right now,” Swager says. “We’re chemists.”

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

Ultratrace Detection of Toxic Chemicals: Triggered Disassembly of Supramolecular Nanotube Wrappers by Shinsuke Ishihara, Joseph M. Azzarelli, Markrete Krikorian, and Timothy M. Swager. J. Am. Chem. Soc., Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/jacs.6b03869 Publication Date (Web): June 23, 2016

Copyright © 2016 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Here are links to other posts about Swager’s work featured here previously:

Carbon nanotubes sense spoiled food (April 23, 2015 post)

Smart suits for US soldiers—an update of sorts from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (Feb. 25, 2014 post)

Come, see my etchings … they detect poison gases (Oct. 9, 2012 post)

Soldiers sniff overripe fruit (May 1, 2012 post)

US Army offers course on nanotechnology

As you might expect, the US Army course on nanotechnology stresses the importance of nanotechnology for the military, according to a June 16, 2016 news item on Nanowerk,

If there is one lesson to glean from Picatinny Arsenal’s new course in nanomaterials, it’s this: never underestimate the power of small.

Nanotechnology is the study of manipulating matter on an atomic, molecular, or supermolecular scale. The end result can be found in our everyday products, such as stained glass [This is a reference to the red glass found in churches from the Middle Ages. More about this later in the posting], sunscreen, cellphones, and pharmaceutical products.

Other examples are in U.S. Army items such as vehicle armor, Soldier uniforms, power sources, and weaponry. All living things also can be considered united forms of nanotechnology produced by the forces of nature.

“People tend to think that nanotechnology is all about these little robots roaming around, fixing the environment or repairing damage to your body, and for many reasons that’s just unrealistic,” said Rajen Patel, a senior engineer within the Energetics and Warheads Manufacturing Technology Division, or EWMTD.

The division is part of the U.S. Army Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center or ARDEC.

A June 15, 2016 ARDEC news release by Cassandra Mainiero, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

“For me, nanotechnology means getting materials to have these properties that you wouldn’t expect them to have.” [Patel]

The subject can be separated into multiple types (nanomedicine, nanomachines, nanoelectronics, nanocomposites, nanophotonics and more), which can benefit areas, such as communications, medicine, environment remediation, and manufacturing.

Nanomaterials are defined as materials that have at least one dimension in the 1-100 nm range (there are 25,400,000 nanometers in one inch.) To provide some size perspective: comparing a nanometer to a meter is like comparing a soccer ball to the earth.

Picatinny’s nanomaterials class focuses on nanomaterials’ distinguishing qualities, such as their optical, electronic, thermal and mechanical properties–and teaches how manipulating them in a weapon can benefit the warfighter [soldier].

While you could learn similar information at a college course, Patel argues that Picatinny’s nanomaterial class is nothing like a university class.

This is because Picatinny’s nanomaterials class focuses on applied, rather than theoretical nanotechnology, using the arsenal as its main source of examples.

“We talk about things like what kind of properties you get, how to make materials, places you might expect to see nanotechnology within the Army,” explained Patel.

The class is taught at the Armament University. Each class lasts three days. The last one was held in February.

Each class includes approximately 25 students and provides an overview of nanotechnology, covering topics, such as its history, early pioneers in the field, and everyday items that rely on nanotechnology.

Additionally, the course covers how those same concepts apply at Picatinny (for electronics, sensors, energetics, robotics, insensitive munitions, and more) and the major difficulties with experimenting and manufacturing nanotechnology.

Moreover, the class involves guest talks from Picatinny engineers and scientists, such as Dan Kaplan, Christopher Haines, and Venkataraman Swaminathan as well as tours of Picatinny facilities like the Nanotechnology Center and the Explosives Research Laboratory.

It also includes lectures from guest speakers, such as Gordon Thomas from the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), who spoke about nanomaterials and diabetes research.

A CLASSROOM COINCIDENCE

Relatively new, the nanomaterials class launched in January 2015. It was pioneered by Patel after he attended an instructional course on teaching at the Armament University, where he met Erin Williams, a technical training analyst at the university.

“At the Armament University, we’re always trying to think of, ‘What new areas of interest should we offer to help our workforce? What forward reaching technologies are needed?’ One topic that came up was nanotechnology,” said Williams about how the nanomaterials class originated.

“I started to do research on the subject, how it might be geared toward Picatinny, and trying to think of ways to organize the class. Then, I enrolled in the instructional course on teaching, where I just so happen to be sitting across from Dr. Rajen Patel, who not only knew about nanotechnology, but taught a few seminars at NJIT, where he did his doctorate,” explained Williams. “I couldn’t believe the coincidence! So, I asked him if he would be interested in teaching a class and he said ‘Yes!'”

“After the first [nanomaterials] class, one of the students came up to me and said ‘This was the best course I’ve ever been to on this arsenal,'” added Williams. “…This is really how Picatinny shines as a team: when you meet people and utilize your knowledge to benefit the organization.”

The success of the first nanomaterials course encouraged Patel to expand his class into specialty fields, designing a two-day nanoenergetics class taught by himself and Victor Stepanov, a senior scientist at EWMTD.

Stepanov works with nano-organic energetics (RDX, HMX, CL-20) and inorganic materials (metals.) He is responsible for creating the first nanoorganic energetic known as nano-RDX. He is involved in research aimed at understanding the various properties of nanoenergetics including sensitivity, performance, and mechanical characteristics. He and Patel teach the nanoenergetics class that was first offered last fall and due to high demand is expected to be offered annually. The next one will be held in September.

“We always ask for everyone’s feedback. And, after our first class, everyone said ‘[Picatinny] is the home of the Army’s lethality–why did we not talk about nanoenergetics?’ So, in response to the student’s feedback, we implemented that nanoenergetics course,” said Patel. “Besides, in the long run, you’ll probably replace most energetics with nano-energetics, as they have far too many advantages.”

TECHNOLOGY EVOLUTION

Since all living things are a form of nanotechnology manipulated by the forces of nature, the history of nanotechnology dates back to the emergence of life. However, a more concrete example can be traced back to ancient times, when nanomaterials were manipulated to create gold and silver art such as Lycurgus Cup, a 4th century Roman glass [I’ve added more about the Lycurgus Cup later in this post].

According to Stepanov, ARDEC’s interest in nanotechnology gained significant momentum approximately 20 years ago. The initiative at ARDEC was directly tied to the emergence of advanced technologies needed for production and characterization of nanomaterials, and was concurrent with adoption of nanotechnologies in other fields such as pharmaceuticals.

In 2010, an article in The Picatinny Voice titled “Tiny particles, big impact: Nanotechnology to help warfighters” discussed Picatinny’s ongoing research on nanopowders.

It noted that Picatinny’s Nanotechnology Lab is the largest facility in North America to produce nanopowders and nanomaterials, which are used to create nanoexplosives.

It also mentioned how using nanomaterials helped to develop lightweight composites as an alternative to traditional steel.

The more recent heightened study is due to the evolution of technology, which has allowed engineers and scientists to be more productive and made nanotechnology more ubiquitous throughout the military.

“Not too long ago making milligram quantities of nanoexplosives was challenging. Now, we have technologies that allow us make pounds of nanoexplosives per hour at low cost,” said Stepanov.

Pilot scale production of nanoexplosives is currently being performed at ARDEC, lead by Ashok Surapaneni of the Explosives Development Branch.

The broad interest in developing nanoenergetics such as nano-RDX and nano-HMX is their remarkably low initiation sensitivity.

These materials can thus be crucial in the development of safer next generation munitions that are much less vulnerable to accidental initiation.

SMALL CHANGES, BIG RESULTS

As a result, working with nanotechnology can have various payoffs, such as enhancing the performance of military products, said Patel. For instance, by manipulating nanomaterials, an engineer could make a weapon stronger, lighter, or increase its reactivity or durability.

“Generally, if you make something more safe, you make it less powerful,” said Stepanov. “But, with nanomaterials, you can make a product more safe and, in many cases, more powerful.”

There are two basic approaches to studying nanomaterials: bottom-up (building a large object atom by atom) and top-down (deconstructing a larger material.) Both approaches have been successfully employed in the development of nanoenergetics at ARDEC.

One of the challenges with manufacturing nonmaterials can be coping with shockwaves.

A shockwave initiates an explosive as it travels through a weapon’s main fill or the booster. When a shockwave travels through an energetic charge, it can hit small regions of defects, or voids, which heat up quickly and build pressure until the explosive reaches detonation. By using nanoenergetics, one could adjust the size and quantity of the defects and voids, so that the pressure isn’t as strong and ultimately prevent accidental detonation.

Nanomaterials also are difficult to process because they tend to agglomerate (stick together) and are also prone to Ostwald Ripening, or spontaneous growth of the crystals, which is especially pronounced at the nano-scale. This effect is commonly observed with ice cream, where ice can re-crystallize, resulting in a gritty texture.

“It’s a major production challenge because if you want to process nanomaterials–if you want to coat it with some polymer for explosives–any kind of medium that can dissolve these types of materials can promote ripening and you can end up with a product which no longer has the nanomaterial that you began with,” explained Stepanov.

However, nanotechnology research continues to grow at Picatinny as the research advances in the U.S. Army.

This ongoing development and future applicability encourages Patel and Stepanov to teach the nanomaterials and nanoenergetics course at Picatinny.

“I’m interested in making things better for the warfighter,” said Patel. “Nano-materials give you so many opportunities to do so. Also, as a scientist, it’s just a fascinating realm because you always get these little interesting surprises.

“You can know all the material science and equations, but then you get in the nano-world, and there’s something like a wrinkle–something you wouldn’t expect,” Patel added.

“It satisfies three deep needs: getting the warfighter technology, producing something of value, and it’s fun. You always see something new.”

Medieval church windows and the Lycurgus Cup

The shade of red in medieval church window glass is said to have been achieved by the use of gold nanoparticles. There is a source which claims the colour is due to copper rather than gold. I have not had to time to pursue the controversy such as it is but do have November 1, 2010 posting about stained glass and medieval churches which may prove of interest.

As for the Lycurgus Cup, it’s from the 4th century (CE or AD) and is an outstanding example of Roman art and craft. The glass in the cup is dichroic (it looks green or red depending on how the light catches it). The effect was achieved with the presence of gold and silver nanoparticles in the glass. I have a more extensive description and pictures in a Sept. 21, 2010 posting.

Final note

There is an  army initiative involving an educational institution, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The initiative is the MIT Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies.

A treasure trove of molecule and battery data released to the public

Scientists working on The Materials Project have taken the notion of open science to their hearts and opened up access to their data according to a June 9, 2016 news item on Nanowerk,

The Materials Project, a Google-like database of material properties aimed at accelerating innovation, has released an enormous trove of data to the public, giving scientists working on fuel cells, photovoltaics, thermoelectrics, and a host of other advanced materials a powerful tool to explore new research avenues. But it has become a particularly important resource for researchers working on batteries. Co-founded and directed by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) scientist Kristin Persson, the Materials Project uses supercomputers to calculate the properties of materials based on first-principles quantum-mechanical frameworks. It was launched in 2011 by the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Science.

A June 8, 2016 Berkeley Lab news release, which originated the news item, provides more explanation about The Materials Project,

The idea behind the Materials Project is that it can save researchers time by predicting material properties without needing to synthesize the materials first in the lab. It can also suggest new candidate materials that experimentalists had not previously dreamed up. With a user-friendly web interface, users can look up the calculated properties, such as voltage, capacity, band gap, and density, for tens of thousands of materials.

Two sets of data were released last month: nearly 1,500 compounds investigated for multivalent intercalation electrodes and more than 21,000 organic molecules relevant for liquid electrolytes as well as a host of other research applications. Batteries with multivalent cathodes (which have multiple electrons per mobile ion available for charge transfer) are promising candidates for reducing cost and achieving higher energy density than that available with current lithium-ion technology.

The sheer volume and scope of the data is unprecedented, said Persson, who is also a professor in UC Berkeley’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering. “As far as the multivalent cathodes, there’s nothing similar in the world that exists,” she said. “To give you an idea, experimentalists are usually able to focus on one of these materials at a time. Using calculations, we’ve added data on 1,500 different compositions.”

While other research groups have made their data publicly available, what makes the Materials Project so useful are the online tools to search all that data. The recent release includes two new web apps—the Molecules Explorer and the Redox Flow Battery Dashboard—plus an add-on to the Battery Explorer web app enabling researchers to work with other ions in addition to lithium.

“Not only do we give the data freely, we also give algorithms and software to interpret or search over the data,” Persson said.

The Redox Flow Battery app gives scientific parameters as well as techno-economic ones, so battery designers can quickly rule out a molecule that might work well but be prohibitively expensive. The Molecules Explorer app will be useful to researchers far beyond the battery community.

“For multivalent batteries it’s so hard to get good experimental data,” Persson said. “The calculations provide rich and robust benchmarks to assess whether the experiments are actually measuring a valid intercalation process or a side reaction, which is particularly difficult for multivalent energy technology because there are so many problems with testing these batteries.”

Here’s a screen capture from the Battery Explorer app,

The Materials Project’s Battery Explorer app now allows researchers to work with other ions in addition to lithium.

The Materials Project’s Battery Explorer app now allows researchers to work with other ions in addition to lithium. Courtesy: The Materials Project

The news release goes on to describe a new discovery made possible by The Materials Project (Note: A link has been removed),

Together with Persson, Berkeley Lab scientist Gerbrand Ceder, postdoctoral associate Miao Liu, and MIT graduate student Ziqin Rong, the Materials Project team investigated some of the more promising materials in detail for high multivalent ion mobility, which is the most difficult property to achieve in these cathodes. This led the team to materials known as thiospinels. One of these thiospinels has double the capacity of the currently known multivalent cathodes and was recently synthesized and tested in the lab by JCESR researcher Linda Nazar of the University of Waterloo, Canada.

“These materials may not work well the first time you make them,” Persson said. “You have to be persistent; for example you may have to make the material very phase pure or smaller than a particular particle size and you have to test them under very controlled conditions. There are people who have actually tried this material before and discarded it because they thought it didn’t work particularly well. The power of the computations and the design metrics we have uncovered with their help is that it gives us the confidence to keep trying.”

The researchers were able to double the energy capacity of what had previously been achieved for this kind of multivalent battery. The study has been published in the journal Energy & Environmental Science in an article titled, “A High Capacity Thiospinel Cathode for Mg Batteries.”

“The new multivalent battery works really well,” Persson said. “It’s a significant advance and an excellent proof-of-concept for computational predictions as a valuable new tool for battery research.”

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

A high capacity thiospinel cathode for Mg batteries by Xiaoqi Sun, Patrick Bonnick, Victor Duffort, Miao Liu, Ziqin Rong, Kristin A. Persson, Gerbrand Ceder and  Linda F. Nazar. Energy Environ. Sci., 2016, Advance Article DOI: 10.1039/C6EE00724D First published online 24 May 2016

This paper seems to be behind a paywall.

Getting back to the news release, there’s more about The Materials Project in relationship to its membership,

The Materials Project has attracted more than 20,000 users since launching five years ago. Every day about 20 new users register and 300 to 400 people log in to do research.

One of those users is Dane Morgan, a professor of engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who develops new materials for a wide range of applications, including highly active catalysts for fuel cells, stable low-work function electron emitter cathodes for high-powered microwave devices, and efficient, inexpensive, and environmentally safe solar materials.

“The Materials Project has enabled some of the most exciting research in my group,” said Morgan, who also serves on the Materials Project’s advisory board. “By providing easy access to a huge database, as well as tools to process that data for thermodynamic predictions, the Materials Project has enabled my group to rapidly take on materials design projects that would have been prohibitive just a few years ago.”

More materials are being calculated and added to the database every day. In two years, Persson expects another trove of data to be released to the public.

“This is the way to reach a significant part of the research community, to reach students while they’re still learning material science,” she said. “It’s a teaching tool. It’s a science tool. It’s unprecedented.”

Supercomputing clusters at the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC), a DOE Office of Science User Facility hosted at Berkeley Lab, provide the infrastructure for the Materials Project.

Funding for the Materials Project is provided by the Office of Science (US Department of Energy], including support through JCESR [Joint Center for Energy Storage Research].

Happy researching!

Next Horizons: Electronic Literature Organization (ELO) 2016
 conference in Victoria, BC

The Electronic Literature Organization (ELO; based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology [MIT]) is holding its annual conference themed Next Horizons (from an Oct. 12, 2015 post on the ELO blog) at the University of Victoria on Vancouver Island, British Columbia from June 10 – June 12, 2016.

You can get a better sense of what it’s all about by looking at the conference schedule/programme,

Friday, June 10, 2016

8:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m.: Registration
MacLaurin Lobby A100

8:00 a.m.-10:00 a.m: Breakfast
Sponsored by Bloomsbury Academic

10:00 a.m.-10:30: Welcome
MacLaurin David Lam Auditorium A 144
Speakers: Dene Grigar & Ray Siemens

10:30-12 noon: Featured Papers
MacLaurin David Lam Auditorium A 144
Chair: Alexandra Saum-Pascual, UC Berkeley

  • Stuart Moulthrop, “Intimate Mechanics: Play and Meaning in the Middle of Electronic Literature”
  • Anastasia Salter, “Code before Content? Brogrammer Culture in Games and Electronic Literature”

12 Noon-1:45 p.m.  Gallery Opening & Lunch Reception
MacLaurin Lobby A 100
Kick off event in celebration of e-lit works
A complete list of artists featured in the Exhibit

1:45-3:00: Keynote Session
MacLaurin David Lam Auditorium A 144
“Prototyping Resistance: Wargame Narrative and Inclusive Feminist Discourse”

  • Jon Saklofske, Acadia University
  • Anastasia Salter, University of Central Florida
  • Liz Losh, College of William and Mary
  • Diane Jakacki, Bucknell University
  • Stephanie Boluk, UC Davis

3:00-3:15: Break

3:15-4:45: Concurrent Session 1

Session 1.1: Best Practices for Archiving E-Lit
MacLaurin D010
Roundtable
Chair: Dene Grigar, Washington State University Vancouver

  • Dene Grigar, Washington State University Vancouver
  • Stuart Moulthrop, University of Wisconsin Milwaukee
  • Matthew Kirschenbaum, University of Maryland College Park
  • Judy Malloy, Independent Artist

Session 1.2: Medium & Meaning
MacLaurin D110
Chair: Rui Torres, University Fernando Pessoa

  • “From eLit to pLit,” Heiko Zimmerman, University of Trier
  • “Generations of Meaning,” Hannah Ackermans, Utrecht University
  • “Co-Designing DUST,” Kari Kraus, University of Maryland College Park

Session 1.3: A Critical Look at E-Lit
MacLaurin D105
Chair: Philippe Brand, Lewis & Clark College

  • “Methods of Interrogation,” John Murray, University of California Santa Cruz
  • “Peering through the Window,” Philippe Brand, Lewis & Clark College
  • “(E-)re-writing Well-Known Works,” Agnieszka Przybyszewska, University of Lodz

Session 1.4: Literary Games
MacLaurin D109
Chair: Alex Mitchell, National University of Singapore

  • “Twine Games,” Alanna Bartolini, UC Santa Barbara
  • “Whose Game Is It Anyway?,” Ryan House, Washington State University Vancouver
  • “Micronarratives Dynamics in the Structure of an Open-World Action-Adventure Game,” Natalie Funk, Simon Fraser University

Session 1.5: eLit and the (Next) Future of Cinema
MacLaurin D107
Roundtable
Chair: Steven Wingate, South Dakota State University

  • Steve Wingate, South Dakota State University
  • Kate Armstrong, Emily Carr University
  • Samantha Gorman, USC

Session 1.6: Authors & Texts
MacLaurin D101
Chair: Robert Glick, Rochester Institute of Technology

  • “Generative Poems by Maria Mencia,” Angelica Huizar, Old Dominion University
  • “Inhabitation: Johanna Drucker: “no file is ever self-identical,” Joel Kateinikoff, University of Alberta
  • “The Great Monster: Ulises Carrión as E-Lit Theorist,” Élika Ortega, University of Kansas
  • “Pedagogic Strategies for Electronic Literature,” Mia Zamora, Kean University

3:15-4:45: Action Session Day 1
MacLaurin D111

  • Digital Preservation, by Nicholas Schiller, Washington State University Vancouver; Zach Coble, NYU
  • ELMCIP, Scott Rettberg and Álvaro Seiça, University of Bergen; Hannah Ackermans, Utrecht University
  • Wikipedia-A-Thon, Liz Losh, College of William and Mary

5:00-6:00: Reception and Poster Session
University of Victoria Faculty Club
For ELO, DHSI, & INKE Participants, featuring these artists and scholars from the ELO:

  • “Social Media for E-Lit Authors,” Michael Rabby, Washington State University Vancouver
  • “– O True Apothecary!, by Kyle Booten,” UC Berkeley, Center for New Media
  • “Life Experience through Digital Simulation Narratives,” David Núñez Ruiz, Neotipo
  • “Building Stories,” Kate Palermini, Washington State University Vancouver
  • “Help Wanted and Skills Offered,” by Deena Larsen, Independent Artist; Julianne Chatelain, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation
  • “Beyond Original E-Lit: Deconstructing Austen Cybertexts,” Meredith Dabek, Maynooth University
  • Arabic E-Lit. (AEL) Project, Riham Hosny, Rochester Institute of Technology/Minia University
  • “Poetic Machines,” Sidse Rubens LeFevre, University of Copenhagen
  • “Meta for Meta’s Sake,” Melinda White

 

7:30-11:00: Readings & Performances at Felicita’s
A complete list of artists featured in the event

Saturday, June 11, 2016

 

8:30-10:00: Lightning Round
MacLaurin David Lam Auditorium A 144
Chair: James O’Sullivan, University of Sheffield

  • “Different Tools but Similar Wits,” Guangxu Zhao, University of Ottawa
  • “Digital Aesthetics,” Bertrand Gervais, Université du Québec à Montréal
  • “Hatsune Miku,” Roman Kalinovski, Independent Scholar
  • “Meta for Meta’s Sake,” Melinda White, University of New Hampshire
  • “Narrative Texture,” Luciane Maria Fadel, Simon Fraser University
  • “Natural Language Generation,” by Stefan Muller Arisona
  • “Poetic Machines,” Sidse Rubens LeFevre, University of Copenhagen
  • “Really Really Long Works,” Aden Evens, Dartmouth University
  • “UnWrapping the E-Reader,” David Roh, University of Utah
  • “Social Media for E-Lit Artists,” Michael Rabby

10:00: Gallery exhibit opens
MacLaurin A100
A complete list of artists featured in the Exhibit

10:30-12 noon: Concurrent Session 2

Session 2.1: Literary Interventions
MacLaurin D101
Brian Ganter, Capilano College

  • “Glitching the Poem,” Aaron Angello, University of Colorado Boulder
  • “WALLPAPER,” Alice Bell, Sheffield Hallam University; Astrid Ensslin, University of Alberta
  • “Unprintable Books,” Kate Pullinger [emphasis mine], Bath Spa University

Session 2.2: Theoretical Underpinnings
MacLaurin D105
Chair: Mia Zamora, Kean University

  • “Transmediation,” Kedrick James, University of British Columbia; Ernesto Pena, University of British Columbia
  • “The Closed World, Databased Narrative, and Network Effect,” Mark Sample, Davidson College
  • “The Cyborg of the House,” Maria Goicoechea, Universidad Complutense de Madrid

Session 2.3: E-Lit in Time and Space
MacLaurin D107
Chair: Andrew Klobucar, New Jersey Institute of Technology

  • “Electronic Literary Artifacts,” John Barber, Washington State University Vancouver; Alcina Cortez, INET-MD, Instituto de Etnomusicologia, Música e Dança
  • “The Old in the Arms of the New,” Gary Barwin, Independent Scholar
  • “Space as a Meaningful Dimension,” Luciane Maria Fadel, Simon Fraser University

Session 2.4: Understanding Bots
MacLaurin D110
Roundtable
Chair: Leonardo Flores, University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez

  • Allison Parrish, Fordham University
  • Matt Schneider, University of Toronto
  • Tobi Hahn, Paisley Games
  • Zach Whalen, University of Mary Washington

10:30-12 noon: Action Session Day 2
MacLaurin D111

  • Digital Preservation, by Nicholas Schiller, Washington State University Vancouver; Zach Coble, NYU
  • ELMCIP, Allison Parrish, Fordham University; Scott Rettberg, University of Bergen; David Nunez Ruiz, Neotipo; Hannah Ackermans, Utrecht University
  • Wikipedia-A-Thon, Liz Losh, College of William and Mary

12:15-1:15: Artists Talks & Lunch
David Lam Auditorium MacLaurin A144

  • “The Listeners,” by John Cayley
  • “The ChessBard and 3D Poetry Project as Translational Ecosystems,” Aaron Tucker, Ryerson University
  • “News Wheel,” Jody Zellen, Independent Artist
  • “x-o-x-o-x.com,” Erik Zepka, Independent Artist

1:30-3:00: Concurrent Session 3

Session 3.1: E-Lit Pedagogy in Global Setting
MacLaurin D111
Roundtable
Co-Chairs: Philippe Bootz, Université Paris 8; Riham Hosny, Rochester Institute of Technology/Minia University

  • Sandy Baldwin, Rochester Institute of Technology
  • Maria Goicoechea, Universidad Complutense de Madrid
  • Odile Farge, UNESCO Chair ITEN, Foundation MSH/University of Paris8.

Session 3.2: The Art of Computational Media
MacLaurin D109
Chair: Rui Torres, University Fernando Pessoa

  • “Creative GREP Works,” Kristopher Purzycki, University of Wisconsin Milwaukee
  • “Using Theme to Author Hypertext Fiction,” Alex Mitchell, National University at Singapore

Session 3.3: Present Future Past
MacLaurin D110
Chair: David Roh, University of Utah

  • “Exploring Potentiality,” Daniela Côrtes Maduro, Universität Bremen
  • “Programming the Kafkaesque Mechanism,” by Kristof Anetta, Slovak Academy of Sciences
  • “Reapprasing Word Processing,” Matthew Kirschenbaum, University of Maryland College Park

Session 3.4: Beyond Collaborative Horizons
MacLaurin D010
Panel
Chair: Jeremy Douglass, UC Santa Barbara

  • Jeremy Douglass, UC Santa Barbara
  • Mark Marino, USC
  • Jessica Pressman, San Diego State University

Session 3.5: E-Loops: Reshuffling Reading & Writing In Electronic Literature Works
MacLaurin D105
Panel
Chair: Gwen Le Cor, Université Paris 8

  • “The Plastic Space of E-loops and Loopholes: the Figural Dynamics of Reading,” Gwen Le Cor, Université Paris 8
  • “Beyond the Cybernetic Loop: Redrawing the Boundaries of E-Lit Translation,” Arnaud Regnauld, Université Paris 8
  • “E-Loops: The Possible and Variable Figure of a Contemporary Aesthetic,” Ariane Savoie, Université du Québec à Montréal and Université Catholique de Louvain
  • “Relocating the Digital,” Stéphane Vanderhaeghe, Université Paris 8

Session 3.6: Metaphorical Perspectives
MacLaurin D107
Chair: Alexandra Saum-Pascual, UC Berkeley

  • “Street Ghosts,” Ali Rachel Pearl, USC
  • “The (Wo)men’s Social Club,” Amber Strother, Washington State University Vancouver
Session 3.7: Embracing Bots
MacLaurin D101

Roundtable
Zach Whalen, Chair

  • Leonardo Flores, University of Puerto Rico Mayagüez Campus
  • Chris Rodley, University of Sydney
  • Élika Ortega, University of Kansas
  • Katie Rose Pipkin, Carnegie Mellon

1:30-3:30: Workshops
MacLaurin D115

  • “Bots,” Zach Whalen, University of Mary Washington
  • “Twine”
  • “AR/VR,” John Murray, UC Santa Cruz
  • “Unity 3D,” Stefan Muller Arisona, University of Applied Sciences and Arts Northwestern; Simon Schubiger, University of Applied Sciences and Arts Northwestern
  • “Exploratory Programming,” Nick Montfort, MIT
  • “Scalar,” Hannah Ackermans, University of Utrecht
  • The Electronic Poet’s Workbench: Build a Generative Writing Practice, Andrew Koblucar, New Jersey Institute of Technology; David Ayre, Programmer and Independent Artist

3:30-5:00: Keynote

Christine Wilks [emphasis mine], “Interactive Narrative and the Art of Steering Through Possible Worlds”
MacLaurin David Lam Auditorium A144

Wilks is British digital writer, artist and developer of playable stories. Her digital fiction, Underbelly, won the New Media Writing Prize 2010 and the MaMSIE Digital Media Competition 2011. Her work is published in online journals and anthologies, including the Electronic Literature Collection, Volume 2 and the ELMCIP Anthology of European Electronic Literature, and has been presented at international festivals, exhibitions and conferences. She is currently doing a practice-based PhD in Digital Writing at Bath Spa University and is also Creative Director of e-learning specialists, Make It Happen.

5:15-6:45: Screenings at Cinecenta
A complete list of artists featured in the Screenings

7:00-9:00: Banquet (a dance follows)
University of Victoria Faculty Club

Sunday, June 12, 2016

 

8:30-10:00: Town Hall
MacLaurin David Lam Auditorium D144

10:00: Gallery exhibit opens
MacLaurin A100
A complete list of artists featured in the Exhibit

10:30-12 p.m.: Concurrent Session 4

Session 4.1: Narratives & Narrativity
MacLaurin D110
Chair: Kendrick James, University of British Columbia

  • “Narrativity in Virtual Reality,” Illya Szilak, Independent Scholar
  • “Simulation Studies,” David Ciccoricco, University of Otago
  • “Future Fiction Storytelling Machines,” Caitlin Fisher, York University

Session 4.2: Historical & Critical Perspectives
MacLaurin D101
Chair: Robert Glick, Rochester Institute of Technology

  • “The Evolution of E-Lit,” James O’Sullivan, University of Sheffield
  • “The Logic of Selection,” by Matti Kangaskoski, Helsinki University

Session 4.3: Emergent Media
MacLaurin D107
Alexandra Saum-Pascual, UC Berkeley

  • Seasons II:  a case study in Ambient Video, Generative Art, and Audiovisual Experience,” Jim Bizzocchi, Simon Fraser University; Arne Eigenfeldt, Simon Fraser University; Philippe Pasquier, Simon Fraser University; Miles Thorogood, Simon Fraser University
  • “Cinematic Turns,” Liz Losh, College of William and Mary
  • “Mario Mods and Ludic Seriality,” Shane Denson, Duke University

Session 4.4: The E-Literary Object
MacLaurin D109
Chair: Deena Larsen, Independent Artist

  • “How E-Literary Is My E-Literature?,” by Leonardo Flores, University of Puerto Rico Mayagüez Campus
  • “Overcoming the Locative Interface Fallacy,” by Lauren Burr, University of Waterloo
  • “Interactive Narratives on the Block,” Aynur Kadir, Simon Fraser University

Session 4.5: Next Narrative
MacLaurin D010
Panel
Chair: Marjorie Luesebrink

  • Marjorie Luesebrink, Independent Artist
  • Daniel Punday, Independent Artist
  • Will Luers, Washington State University Vancouver

10:30-12 p.m.: Action Session Day 3
MacLaurin D111

  • Digital Preservation, by Nicholas Schiller, Washington State University Vancouver; Zach Coble, NYU
  • ELMCIP, Allison Parrish, Fordham University; Scott Rettberg, University of Bergen; David Nunez Ruiz, Neotipo; Hannah Ackermans, Utrecht University
  • Wikipedia-A-Thon, Liz Losh, College of William and Mary

12:15-1:30: Artists Talks & Lunch
David Lam Auditorium A144

  • “Just for the Cameras,” Flourish Klink, Independent Artist
  • “Lulu Sweet,” Deanne Achong and Faith Moosang, Independent Artists
  • “Drone Pilot,” Ian Hatcher, Independent Artist
  • “AVATAR/MOCAP,” Alan Sondheim, Independent Artist

1:30-3:00 : Concurrent Session 5

Session 5.1: Subversive Texts
MacLaurin D101
Chair: Michael Rabby, Washington State University Vancouver

  • “E-Lit Jazz,” Sandy Baldwin, Rochester Institute of Technology; Rui Torres, University Fernando Pessoa
  • “Pop Subversion in Electronic Literature,” Davin Heckman, Winona State University
  • “E-Lit in Arabic Universities,” Riham Hosny, Rochester Institute of Technology/Minia University

Session 5.2: Experiments in #NetProv & Participatory Narratives
MacLaurin D109
Roundtable
Chair: Mia Zamora, Kean University

  • Mark Marino, USC
  • Rob Wittig, Meanwhile… Netprov Studio
  • Mia Zamora, Kean University

Session 5.3: Emergent Media
MacLaurin D105
Chair: Andrew Klobucar, New Jersey Institute of Technology

  • “Migrating Electronic Literature to the Kinect System,” Monika Gorska-Olesinka, University of Opole
  • “Mobile and Tactile Screens as Venues for the Performing Arts?,” Serge Bouchardon, Sorbonne Universités, Université de Technologie de Compiègne
  • “The Unquantified Self: Imagining Ethopoiesis in the Cognitive Era,” Andrew Klobucar, New Jersey Institute of Technology

Session 5.4: E-Lit Labs
MacLaurin D010
Chair: Jim Brown, Rutgers University Camden

  • Jim Brown, Rutgers University Camden
  • Robert Emmons, Rutgers University Camden
  • Brian Greenspan, Carleton University
  • Stephanie Boluk, UC Davis
  • Patrick LeMieux, UC Davis

Session 5.5: Transmedia Publishing
MacLaurin D107
Roundtable
Chair: Philippe Bootz

  • Philippe Bootz, Université Paris 8
  • Lucile Haute, Université Paris 8
  • Nolwenn Trehondart, Université Paris 8
  • Steve Wingate, South Dakota State University

Session 5.6: Feminist Horizons
MacLaurin D110
Panel
Moderator: Anastasia Salter, University of Central Florida

  • Kathi Inman Berens, Portland State University
  • Jessica Pressman, San Diego State University
  • Caitlin Fisher, York University

3:30-5:00: Closing Session
David Lam Auditorium MacLaurin A144
Chairs: John Cayley, Brown University; Dene Grigar, President, ELO

  • “Platforms and Genres of Electronic Literature,” Scott Rettberg, University of Bergen
  • “Emergent Story Structures,” David Meurer. York University
  • “We Must Go Deeper,” Samantha Gorman, USC; Milan Koerner-Safrata, Recon Instruments

I’ve bolded two names: Christine Wilks, one of two conference keynote speakers, who completed her MA in the same cohort as mine in De Montfort University’s Creative Writing and New Media master’s program. Congratulations on being a keynote speaker, Christine! The other name belongs to Kate Pullinger who was one of two readers for that same MA programme. Since those days, Pullinger has won a Governor General’s award for her fiction, “The Mistress of Nothing,” and become a professor at the University of Bath Spa (UK).

Registration appears to be open.

Making better concrete by looking to nature for inspiration

Researchers from the Masssachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are working on a new formula for concrete based on bones, shells, and other such natural materials. From a May 25, 2016 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

Researchers at MIT are seeking to redesign concrete — the most widely used human-made material in the world — by following nature’s blueprints.

In a paper published online in the journal Construction and Building Materials (“Roadmap across the mesoscale for durable and sustainable cement paste – A bioinspired approach”), the team contrasts cement paste — concrete’s binding ingredient — with the structure and properties of natural materials such as bones, shells, and deep-sea sponges. As the researchers observed, these biological materials are exceptionally strong and durable, thanks in part to their precise assembly of structures at multiple length scales, from the molecular to the macro, or visible, level.

A May 26, 2016 MIT news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail,

From their observations, the team, led by Oral Buyukozturk, a professor in MIT’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE), proposed a new bioinspired, “bottom-up” approach for designing cement paste.

“These materials are assembled in a fascinating fashion, with simple constituents arranging in complex geometric configurations that are beautiful to observe,” Buyukozturk says. “We want to see what kinds of micromechanisms exist within them that provide such superior properties, and how we can adopt a similar building-block-based approach for concrete.”

Ultimately, the team hopes to identify materials in nature that may be used as sustainable and longer-lasting alternatives to Portland cement, which requires a huge amount of energy to manufacture.

“If we can replace cement, partially or totally, with some other materials that may be readily and amply available in nature, we can meet our objectives for sustainability,” Buyukozturk says.

“The merger of theory, computation, new synthesis, and characterization methods have enabled a paradigm shift that will likely change the way we produce this ubiquitous material, forever,” Buehler says. “It could lead to more durable roads, bridges, structures, reduce the carbon and energy footprint, and even enable us to sequester carbon dioxide as the material is made. Implementing nanotechnology in concrete is one powerful example [of how] to scale up the power of nanoscience to solve grand engineering challenges.”

From molecules to bridges

Today’s concrete is a random assemblage of crushed rocks and stones, bound together by a cement paste. Concrete’s strength and durability depends partly on its internal structure and configuration of pores. For example, the more porous the material, the more vulnerable it is to cracking. However, there are no techniques available to precisely control concrete’s internal structure and overall properties.

“It’s mostly guesswork,” Buyukozturk says. “We want to change the culture and start controlling the material at the mesoscale.”

As Buyukozturk describes it, the “mesoscale” represents the connection between microscale structures and macroscale properties. For instance, how does cement’s microscopic arrangement affect the overall strength and durability of a tall building or a long bridge? Understanding this connection would help engineers identify features at various length scales that would improve concrete’s overall performance.

“We’re dealing with molecules on the one hand, and building a structure that’s on the order of kilometers in length on the other,” Buyukozturk says. “How do we connect the information we develop at the very small scale, to the information at the large scale? This is the riddle.”

Building from the bottom, up

To start to understand this connection, he and his colleagues looked to biological materials such as bone, deep sea sponges, and nacre (an inner shell layer of mollusks), which have all been studied extensively for their mechanical and microscopic properties. They looked through the scientific literature for information on each biomaterial, and compared their structures and behavior, at the nano-, micro-, and macroscales, with that of cement paste.

They looked for connections between a material’s structure and its mechanical properties. For instance, the researchers found that a deep sea sponge’s onion-like structure of silica layers provides a mechanism for preventing cracks. Nacre has a “brick-and-mortar” arrangement of minerals that generates a strong bond between the mineral layers, making the material extremely tough.

“In this context, there is a wide range of multiscale characterization and computational modeling techniques that are well established for studying the complexities of biological and biomimetic materials, which can be easily translated into the cement community,” says Masic.

Applying the information they learned from investigating biological materials, as well as knowledge they gathered on existing cement paste design tools, the team developed a general, bioinspired framework, or methodology, for engineers to design cement, “from the bottom up.”

The framework is essentially a set of guidelines that engineers can follow, in order to determine how certain additives or ingredients of interest will impact cement’s overall strength and durability. For instance, in a related line of research, Buyukozturk is looking into volcanic ash [emphasis mine] as a cement additive or substitute. To see whether volcanic ash would improve cement paste’s properties, engineers, following the group’s framework, would first use existing experimental techniques, such as nuclear magnetic resonance, scanning electron microscopy, and X-ray diffraction to characterize volcanic ash’s solid and pore configurations over time.

Researchers could then plug these measurements into models that simulate concrete’s long-term evolution, to identify mesoscale relationships between, say, the properties of volcanic ash and the material’s contribution to the strength and durability of an ash-containing concrete bridge. These simulations can then be validated with conventional compression and nanoindentation experiments, to test actual samples of volcanic ash-based concrete.

Ultimately, the researchers hope the framework will help engineers identify ingredients that are structured and evolve in a way, similar to biomaterials, that may improve concrete’s performance and longevity.

“Hopefully this will lead us to some sort of recipe for more sustainable concrete,” Buyukozturk says. “Typically, buildings and bridges are given a certain design life. Can we extend that design life maybe twice or three times? That’s what we aim for. Our framework puts it all on paper, in a very concrete way, for engineers to use.”

This is not the only team looking at new methods for producing the material, my Dec. 24, 2012 posting features a number of ‘concrete’ research projects.

Also, I highlighted the reference to ‘volcanic ash’ as it reminded me of Roman concrete which has lasted for over 2000 years and includes volcanic sand and volcanic rock.  You can read more about it in a Dec. 18, 2014 article by Mark Miller for Ancient Origins where he describes the wonders of the material and what was then a recent discovery of the Romans’ recipe.

I have two links and citations, first, the MIT paper, then the paper on Roman concrete.

Roadmap across the mesoscale for durable and sustainable cement paste – A bioinspired approach by Steven D. Palkovic, Dieter B. Brommer, Kunal Kupwade-Patil, Admir Masic, Markus J. Buehler, Oral Büyüköztürk.Construction and Building Materials Volume 115, 15 July 2016, Pages 13–31.  doi:10.1016/j.conbuildmat.2016.04.020

Mechanical resilience and cementitious processes in Imperial Roman architectural mortar by Marie D. Jackson, Eric N. Landis, Philip F. Brune, Massimo Vitti, Heng Chen, Qinfei Li, Martin Kunz, Hans-Rudolf Wenk, Paulo J. M. Monteiro, and Anthony R. Ingraffea. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences  vol. 111 no. 52 18484–18489, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1417456111

The first paper is behind a paywall but the second one appears to be open access.