Tag Archives: National Science Foundation

Carbon nanotubes sense spoiled food


Courtesy: MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)

I love this .gif; it says a lot without a word. However for details, you need words and here’s what an April 15, 2015 news item on Nanowerk has to say about the research illustrated by the .gif,

MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] chemists have devised an inexpensive, portable sensor that can detect gases emitted by rotting meat, allowing consumers to determine whether the meat in their grocery store or refrigerator is safe to eat.

The sensor, which consists of chemically modified carbon nanotubes, could be deployed in “smart packaging” that would offer much more accurate safety information than the expiration date on the package, says Timothy Swager, the John D. MacArthur Professor of Chemistry at MIT.

An April 14, 2015 MIT news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, offers more from Dr. Swager,

It could also cut down on food waste, he adds. “People are constantly throwing things out that probably aren’t bad,” says Swager, who is the senior author of a paper describing the new sensor this week in the journal Angewandte Chemie.

This latest study is builds on previous work at Swager’s lab (Note: Links have been removed),

The sensor is similar to other carbon nanotube devices that Swager’s lab has developed in recent years, including one that detects the ripeness of fruit. All of these devices work on the same principle: Carbon nanotubes can be chemically modified so that their ability to carry an electric current changes in the presence of a particular gas.

In this case, the researchers modified the carbon nanotubes with metal-containing compounds called metalloporphyrins, which contain a central metal atom bound to several nitrogen-containing rings. Hemoglobin, which carries oxygen in the blood, is a metalloporphyrin with iron as the central atom.

For this sensor, the researchers used a metalloporphyrin with cobalt at its center. Metalloporphyrins are very good at binding to nitrogen-containing compounds called amines. Of particular interest to the researchers were the so-called biogenic amines, such as putrescine and cadaverine, which are produced by decaying meat.

When the cobalt-containing porphyrin binds to any of these amines, it increases the electrical resistance of the carbon nanotube, which can be easily measured.

“We use these porphyrins to fabricate a very simple device where we apply a potential across the device and then monitor the current. When the device encounters amines, which are markers of decaying meat, the current of the device will become lower,” Liu says.

In this study, the researchers tested the sensor on four types of meat: pork, chicken, cod, and salmon. They found that when refrigerated, all four types stayed fresh over four days. Left unrefrigerated, the samples all decayed, but at varying rates.

There are other sensors that can detect the signs of decaying meat, but they are usually large and expensive instruments that require expertise to operate. “The advantage we have is these are the cheapest, smallest, easiest-to-manufacture sensors,” Swager says.

“There are several potential advantages in having an inexpensive sensor for measuring, in real time, the freshness of meat and fish products, including preventing foodborne illness, increasing overall customer satisfaction, and reducing food waste at grocery stores and in consumers’ homes,” says Roberto Forloni, a senior science fellow at Sealed Air, a major supplier of food packaging, who was not part of the research team.

The new device also requires very little power and could be incorporated into a wireless platform Swager’s lab recently developed that allows a regular smartphone to read output from carbon nanotube sensors such as this one.

The funding sources are interesting, as I am appreciating with increasing frequency these days (from the news release),

The researchers have filed for a patent on the technology and hope to license it for commercial development. The research was funded by the National Science Foundation and the Army Research Office through MIT’s Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies.

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

Single-Walled Carbon Nanotube/Metalloporphyrin Composites for the Chemiresistive Detection of Amines and Meat Spoilage by Sophie F. Liu, Alexander R. Petty, Dr. Graham T. Sazama, and Timothy M. Swager. Angewandte Chemie International Edition DOI: 10.1002/anie.201501434 Article first published online: 13 APR 2015

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

This article is behind a paywall.

There are other posts here about the quest to create food sensors including this Sept. 26, 2013 piece which features a critique (by another blogger) about trying to create food sensors that may be more expensive than the item they are protecting, a problem Swager claims to have overcome in an April 17, 2015 article by Ben Schiller for Fast Company (Note: Links have been removed),

Swager has set up a company to commercialize the technology and he expects to do the first demonstrations to interested clients this summer. The first applications are likely to be for food workers working with meat and fish, but there’s no reason why consumers shouldn’t get their own devices in due time.

There are efforts to create visual clues for food status. But Swager says his method is better because it doesn’t rely on perception: it produces hard data that can be logged and tracked. And it also has potential to be very cheap.

“The resistance method is a game-changer because it’s two to three orders of magnitude cheaper than other technology. It’s hard to imagine doing this cheaper,” he says.

2013 U.S.-EU (European Union) NanoEHS (Environment, Health, and Safety) Workshop—sorry you can’t register yet

The October 2013 issue (6th newsletter) from NanoValid, an EU-funded (European Union) funded project; mentioned in my Aug. 6, 2013 posting, featuring a Sept. 2013 workshop on characterizing nanomaterials, mentions activities such as an upcoming 2013 US-EU EHS (Environment, Health, and Safety) nano workshop (from the US-EU.org’s nano EHS event page),,

NOTICE: Registration for this event has been delayed due to the U.S. government shutdown. We are working to open registration as soon as possible and will post the registration link on http://us-eu.org/2013-u-s-eu-nanoehs-workshop/ as  soon as it is live. Please contact [email protected] if you have any questions or concerns. Thank you for your patience.

DATE: December 2-3, 2013

LOCATION: National Science Foundation, 4201 Wilson Blvd, Arlington, Virginia

SCOPE: This event will bring together the U.S.-EU Communities of Research (CORs), which are a platform for scientists address environmental; health; and safety questions about nanomaterials, by developing a shared repertoire of protocols and methods to overcome research gaps and barriers. The Communities were established in 2012, and this workshop is intended to further develop and support the CORs’ activities.

OBJECTIVES: The goal of this workshop is to publicize progress towards COR goals and objectives, clarify and communicate future plans, share best practices, and identify areas of cross-Community collaboration.

OUTCOMES: This workshop will culminate in a publicly-available workshop summary. Presentation slides will also be posted on us-eu.org.

STRUCTURE: U.S. – EU events will span 2 days before the 2013 NSF Nanoscale Science and Engineering (NSE) grantees conference (http://www.nseresearch.org/).

  • Monday, December 2: Self-Managed Meetings of Individual CORs at NSF
  • Tuesday, December 3: “U.S.-EU: Bridging NanoEHS Research Efforts” Joint Workshop. All of the CORs will convene to report progress, communicate future goals, share best practices, and identify potential areas for collaboration.

Attendees are invited to remain for:

  • Wednesday-Friday, December 4-6: NSE grantee conference. Day 1 will focus on the research and education activities of ongoing grant projects in the area of environmental health and safety.

ATTENDEES: Participants will include American and European scientists and policy makers from academia, research institutes, industry, and governments. This workshop will be free and open to the public with registration on a first-come, first-served basis. Registration will likely be capped at approximately 100 people.

I found a more direct link to the 2013 NSF Nanoscale Science and Engineering Grantees Conference here. Also, here’s a link to the October 2013 (6th) issue of the NanoValid newsletter..

NBD Nano startup company and the Namib desert beetle

In 2001, Andrew Parker and Chris Lawrence published an article in Nature magazine about work which has inspired a US startup company in 2012 to develop a water bottle that fills itself up with water by drawing moisture from the air. Parker’s and Lawrence’s article was titled Water capture by a desert beetle. Here’s the abstract (over 10 years later the article is still behind a paywall),

Some beetles in the Namib Desert collect drinking water from fog-laden wind on their backs1. We show here that these large droplets form by virtue of the insect’s bumpy surface, which consists of alternating hydrophobic, wax-coated and hydrophilic, non-waxy regions. The design of this fog-collecting structure can be reproduced cheaply on a commercial scale and may find application in water-trapping tent and building coverings, for example, or in water condensers and engines.

Some five years later, there was a June 15, 2006 news item on phys.org about the development of a new material based on the Namib desert beetle,

When that fog rolls in, the Namib Desert beetle is ready with a moisture-collection system exquisitely adapted to its desert habitat. Inspired by this dime-sized beetle, MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] researchers have produced a new material that can capture and control tiny amounts of water.

The material combines a superhydrophobic (water-repelling) surface with superhydrophilic (water-attracting) bumps that trap water droplets and control water flow. The work was published in the online version of Nano Letters on Tuesday, May 2 [2006] {behind a paywall}.

Potential applications for the new material include harvesting water, making a lab on a chip (for diagnostics and DNA screening) and creating microfluidic devices and cooling devices, according to lead researchers Robert Cohen, the St. Laurent Professor of Chemical Engineering, and Michael Rubner, the TDK Professor of Polymer Materials Science and Engineering.

The MIT June 14, 2006 news release by Anne Trafton, which originated the news item about the new material, indicates there was some military interest,

The U.S. military has also expressed interest in using the material as a self-decontaminating surface that could channel and collect harmful substances.

The researchers got their inspiration after reading a 2001 article in Nature describing the Namib Desert beetle’s moisture-collection strategy. Scientists had already learned to copy the water-repellent lotus leaf, and the desert beetle shell seemed like another good candidate for “bio-mimicry.”

When fog blows horizontally across the surface of the beetle’s back, tiny water droplets, 15 to 20 microns, or millionths of a meter, in diameter, start to accumulate on top of bumps on its back.

The bumps, which attract water, are surrounded by waxy water-repelling channels. “That allows small amounts of moisture in the air to start to collect on the tops of the hydrophilic bumps, and it grows into bigger and bigger droplets,” Rubner said. “When it gets large, it overcomes the pinning force that holds it and rolls down into the beetle’s mouth for a fresh drink of water.”

To create a material with the same abilities, the researchers manipulated two characteristics — roughness and nanoporosity (spongelike capability on a nanometer, or billionths of a meter, scale).

By repeatedly dipping glass or plastic substrates into solutions of charged polymer chains dissolved in water, the researchers can control the surface texture of the material. Each time the substrate is dipped into solution, another layer of charged polymer coats the surface, adding texture and making the material more porous. Silica nanoparticles are then added to create an even rougher texture that helps trap water droplets.

The material is then coated with a Teflon-like substance, making it superhydrophobic. Once that water-repellent layer is laid down, layers of charged polymers and nanoparticles can be added in certain areas, using a properly formulated water/alcohol solvent mixture, thereby creating a superhydrophilic pattern. The researchers can manipulate the technique to create any kind of pattern they want.

The research is funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the National Science Foundation.

I’m not sure what happened with the military interest or the group working out of MIT in 2006 but on Nov. 23, 2012, BBC News online featured an article about a US startup company, NBD Nano, which aims to bring a self-filling water bottle based on Namib desert beetle to market,

NBD Nano, which consists of four recent university graduates and was formed in May, looked at the Namib Desert beetle that lives in a region that gets about half an inch of rainfall per year.

Using a similar approach, the firm wants to cover the surface of a bottle with hydrophilic (water-attracting) and hydrophobic (water-repellent) materials.

The work is still in its early stages, but it is the latest example of researchers looking at nature to find inspiration for sustainable technology.

“It was important to apply [biomimicry] to our design and we have developed a proof of concept and [are] currently creating our first fully-functional prototype,” Miguel Galvez, a co-founder, told the BBC.

“We think our initial prototype will collect anywhere from half a litre of water to three litres per hour, depending on local environments.”

According to the Nov. 25, 2012 article by Nancy Owano for phys.org, the company is at the prototype stage now,

NBD Nano plans to enter the worldwide marketplace between 2014 and 2015.

You can find out more about NBD Nano here.

POD (print-on-demand) robots

I’ve heard of print-on-demand (POD) books before but not robots as per the April 4, 2012 article on BBC News online (link to National Science Foundation removed),

Researchers aim to build a desktop technology that would allow an average person to design and print a machine within 24 hours.

The team says that making it easier to create specialised robots could have a “profound impact on society”.

The effort is being funded by a $10m (£6.3m) grant from the National Science Foundation [NSF].

The Virginia-based organization [NSF] described the move as a “game changing investment”.

“It has the potential to democratise and personalise automation to meet the needs of individual users – whether for search and rescue workers in remote areas of the world or educators in classrooms around the US – possibilities for social impact abound,” said spokeswoman Lisa-Joy Zgorski.

The April 3, 2012 MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) news item by Abby Abazorius provides more detail,

“This research envisions a whole new way of thinking about the design and manufacturing of robots, and could have a profound impact on society,” says MIT Professor Daniela Rus, leader of the project and a principal investigator at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL). “We believe that it has the potential to transform manufacturing and to democratize access to robots.”

“Our goal is to develop technology that enables anyone to manufacture their own customized robot. This is truly a game changer,” says Professor Vijay Kumar, who is leading the team from the University of Pennsylvania. “It could allow for the rapid design and manufacture of customized goods, and change the way we teach science and technology in high schools.”

The five-year project, called “An Expedition in Computing for Compiling Printable Programmable Machines,” brings together a team of researchers from MIT, the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard University, and is funded as part of the NSF’s “Expeditions in Computing” program.

It currently takes years to produce, program and design a functioning robot, and is an extremely expensive process, involving hardware and software design, machine learning and vision, and advanced programming techniques. The new project would automate the process of producing functional 3-D devices and allow individuals to design and build functional robots from materials as easily accessible as a sheet of paper.

Researchers hope to create a platform that would allow an individual to identify a household problem that needs assistance; then head to a local printing store to select a blueprint, from a library of robotic designs; and then customize an easy-to-use robotic device that could solve the problem. Within 24 hours, the robot would be printed, assembled, fully programmed and ready for action.

By altering the way in which machines can be produced, designed and built, the project could have far reaching implications for a variety of fields.

“This project aims to dramatically reduce the development time for a variety of useful robots, opening the doors to potential applications in manufacturing, education, personalized health care and even disaster relief,” says Rob Wood, an associate professor at Harvard University.

Thus far, the research team has prototyped two machines for designing, printing and programming, including an insect-like robot that could be used for exploring a contaminated area and a gripper that could be used by people with limited mobility.

Here’s a video demonstrating a few of the prototypes the team has developed (an “insect-like robot that could be used for exploring a contaminated area and a gripper that could be used by people with limited mobility”).

You can find out more about the CSAIL project at MIT here.

Other research collaborators on the five-year NSF project include Visiting Scientist Martin Demaine, Associate Professor Wojciech Matusik, Professor Martin Rinard, and Assistant Professor Sangbae Kim of MIT. Besides Wood (Harvard) and Kumar (UPenn), the team also includes Associate Professor Andre DeHon, Professor Sanjeev Khanna and Professor Insup Lee, all from UPenn.

No! A picture is not worth 1,000 words

I’m fascinated with the ways in which data and scientific information is visualized. It’s a rich area for communication and, often, seriously undervalued. That said, the saying ‘A picture is worth  a thousand words’ is pure bunkum. There are times when pictures are better than words and there are times when you absolutely must have the words and the pictures  and there are times when all you need are the words.

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, … (Elizabeth Barrett Browning)

Do these words need a picture? I say, no.  As for times when pictures are better than words, try putting together furniture or anything else in a kit using written instructions only. Well illustrated diagrams are all you need for something relatively simple.

Poetry and technical instructions are highly specialized instances and, in most cases, words and pictures together are best as they convey different information and reinforce each other. You need the words to supply context, while the visualization offers an experience. Take a look at this video featuring,

The winners of the 2010 International Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge, sponsored jointly by the journal Science and the National Science Foundation (NSF), share spectacular photographs, graphics, illustrations and video that engage viewers by conveying the complex substance of science through different art forms.

The video presents interviews with Science News editor Colin Norman and the first-place winners, produced by Natasha Pinol and edited by Carla Schaffer of the Science Press Package. (from Youtube).

and then imagine not having a single verbal (i.e., ‘word-ridden’) explanation.

(BTW, there is a nanotechnology reference towards the end of this video.) All of this is by way of noting that the 2011 competition has been announced. From the Feb. 18, 2011 news item on Nanowerk,

The National Science Foundation (NSF) and the journal Science created the International Science & Engineering Visualization Challenge to celebrate that grand tradition–and to encourage its continued growth. The spirit of the competition is for communicating science, engineering and technology for education and journalistic purposes.

Judges appointed by NSF and Science will select winners in each of five categories: Photography, Illustrations, Informational Posters and Graphics, Interactives Games and Non-Interactive Media. The winning entries will appear in a special section in Science and Science Online, and on the NSF website, and one of the winning entries will be pictured on the front cover. In addition, each winner will receive a one-year print and on-line subscription to the journal Science and a certificate of appreciation.

You can find guidelines and entry forms here. Interestingly there was a Feb. 12, 2011 news item on physorg.com that focused on visualizing scientific data as part of the process rather than as a presentation of the results (i.e. the kind of work you’ll see in the video),

Peter Fox and James Hendler of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute are calling for scientists to take a few tips from the users of the World Wide Web when presenting their data to the public and other scientists in the Feb. 11 issue of Science magazine. Fox and Hendler, both professors within the Tetherless World Research Constellation at Rensselaer, outline a new vision for the visualization of scientific data in a perspective piece titled “Changing the Equation on Scientific Data Visualization.”

As the researchers explain, visualizations provide a means to enable the understanding of complex data. The problem with the current use of visualization in the scientific community, according to Fox and Hendler, is that when visualizations are actually included by scientists, they are often an end product of research used to simply illustrate the results and are inconsistently incorporated into the entire scientific process. Their visualizations are also static and cannot be easily updated or modified when new information arises.

And as scientists create more and more data with more powerful computing systems, their ability to develop useful visualizations of that data will become more time consuming and expensive with the traditional approaches.

I find this interest from scientists quite intriguing and mutual with the interest from other communities. I noted that Baba Brinkman included scientific data and visualizations as part of his performance of The Rap Guide to Evolution (Feb. 21, 2011 posting).

Recently, there was a local (Vancouver, Canada) theatrical performance that featured demographic data. Each individual is a visual, living, breathing representation of demographic data pulled from Vancouver’s most recent census. From the 2011 PUSH Festival web page for 100% Vancouver,

A Statistical Chain Reaction

One by one, 100 people enter the stage. These are not trained actors. These are everyday Vancouverites. The demographics of a city brought to life, with the stories and individuals that make up Vancouver 125 years after its official beginning. As questions are posed, the participants sort themselves according to opinions and political leanings, where they’re from, how they spend their time, car they drive, bus they take, peanut butter preference and so on. A living, breathing portrait of Vancouver emerges.

Each person represents 1% of the roughly 646,385 people residing in Vancouver. Casting starts with a single person. This first person has 24 hours to recruit the next person, who must then find the next, and so on. In just over three months, the full 100 are linked. Participants are chosen according to specific search criteria—gender, age, marital status, ethnicity, and neighbourhood in which they live—attempting to reflect the demographics of the last census.

100% Vancouver is based on an ongoing project of Berlin’s Rimini Protokoll, which has included 100% Berlin and 100% Vienna. With work like the interactive Best Before (2010 PuSh Festival), the company’s signature style draws on the perspectives of “experts in daily life” to create contemporary works where everyday people are the theatre’s real protagonists. (Note: They were last mentioned in my Feb. 1, 2010 posting [scroll down past the first few paragraphs].)


Theatre Replacement builds performances that speak to contemporary existence and investigate the events that fill our lives.


While the theatrical companies producing this show weren’t overtly interested in visualizing data, I find the approach quite appealing.