Tag Archives: Netherlands

Superposition in biological processes

Applying the concept of superposition to photosynthesis and olfaction is not the first thought that would have occurred to me on stumbling across the European Union’s PAPETS project (Phonon-Assisted Processes for Energy Transfer and Sensing). Thankfully, a July 9, 2015 news item on Nanowerk sets the record straight (Note: A link has been removed),

Quantum physics is helping researchers to better understand photosynthesis and olfaction.

Can something be for instance in two different places at the same time? According to quantum physics, it can. More precisely, in line with the principle of ‘superposition’, a particle can be described as being in two different states simultaneously.

While it may sound like voodoo to the non-expert, superposition is based on solid science. Researchers in the PAPETS project are exploring this and other phenomena on the frontier between biology and quantum physics. Their goal is to determine the role of vibrational dynamics in photosynthesis and olfaction.

A July 7, 2015 research news article on the CORDIS website, which originated the news item, further explains (Note: A link has been removed),

Quantum effects in a biological system, namely in a photosynthetic complex, were first observed by Greg Engel and collaborators in 2007, in the USA. These effects were reproduced in different laboratories at a temperature of around -193 degrees Celsius and subsequently at ambient temperature.

‘What’s surprising and exciting is that these quantum effects have been observed in biological complexes, which are large, wet and noisy systems,’ says PAPETS project coordinator, Dr. Yasser Omar, researcher at Instituto de Telecomunicações and professor at Universidade de Lisboa [Portugal]. ‘Superposition is fragile and we would expect it to be destroyed by the environment.’

Superposition contributes to more efficient energy transport. An exciton, a quantum quasi-particle carrying energy, can travel faster along the photosynthetic complex due to the fact that it can exist in two states simultaneously. When it comes to a bifurcation it need not choose left or right. It can proceed down both paths simultaneously.

‘It’s like a maze,’ says Dr. Omar. ‘Only one door leads to the exit but the exciton can probe both left and right at the same time. It’s more efficient.’

Dr. Omar and his colleagues believe that a confluence of factors help superposition to be effected and maintained, namely the dynamics of the vibrating environment, whose role is precisely what the PAPETS project aims to understand and exploit.

Theory and experimentation meet

The theories being explored by PAPETS are also tested in experiments to validate them and gain further insights. To study quantum transport in photosynthesis, for example, researchers shoot fast laser pulses into biological systems. They then observe interference along the transport network, a signature of wavelike phenomena.

‘It’s like dropping stones into a lake,’ explains Dr. Omar. ‘You can then see whether the waves that are generated grow bigger or cancel each other when they meet.’

Applications: more efficient solar cells and odour detection

While PAPETS is essentially an exploratory project, it is generating insights that could have practical applications. PAPETS’ researchers are getting a more fundamental understanding of how photosynthesis works and this could result in the design of much more efficient solar cells.

Olfaction, the capacity to recognise and distinguish different odours, is another promising area. Experiments focus on the behaviour of Drosophila flies. So far, researchers suspect that the tunnelling of electrons associated to the internal vibrations of a molecule may be a signature of odour. Dr. Omar likens this tunnelling to a ping-pong ball resting in a bowl that goes through the side of the bowl to appear outside it.

This work could have applications in the food, water, cosmetics or drugs industries. Better artificial odour sensing could be used to detect impurities or pollution, for example.

‘Unlike seeing, hearing or touching, the sense of smell is difficult to reproduce artificially with high efficacy,’ says Dr. Omar.

The PAPETS project, involving 7 partners, runs from September 2014 to August 2016 and has a budgeted EU contribution funding of EUR 1.8 million.

You can find out more about PAPETS here. In the meantime, I found the other partners in the project (in addition to Portugal), from the PAPETS Partners webpage (Note: Links have been removed),

– Controlled Quantum Dynamics Group, Universität Ulm (UULM), Germany. PI: Martin Plenio and Susana Huelga.
– Biophysics Research Group, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VUA), Netherlands. PI: Rienk van Grondelle and Roberta Croce.
– Department of Chemical Sciences, Università degli Studi di Padova (UNIPD), Italy. PI: Elisabetta Collini.
– Biomedical Sciences Research Centre “Alexander Fleming” (FLEMING), Athens, Greece. PI: Luca Turin and Efthimios M. Skoulakis.
– Biological Physics and Complex Systems Group, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), Orléans, France. PI: Francesco Piazza.
– Quantum Physics of Biomolecular Processes, University College London (UCL), UK. PI: Alexandra Olaya-Castro.

Extending catalyst life for oil and gas

A July 6, 2015 news item on Nanowerk describes the progress on determining exactly how catalysis is achieved when using zeolite (Note: A link has been removed),

Despite decades of industrial use, the exact chemical transformations occurring within zeolites, a common material used in the conversion of oil to gasoline, remain poorly understood. Now scientists have found a way to locate—with atomic precision—spots within the material where chemical reactions take place, and how these spots shut down.

Called active sites, the spots help rip apart and rearrange molecules as they pass through nanometer-sized channels, like an assembly line in a factory. A process called steaming causes these active sites to cluster, effectively shutting down the factory, the scientists reported in Nature Communications (“Determining the location and nearest neighbours of aluminium in zeolites with atom probe tomography”). This knowledge could help devise how to keep the factory running longer, so to speak, and improve catalysts that help produce fuel, biofuel and other chemicals.

A July 6, 2015 Pacific Northwest National Laboratories (PNNL) news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the collaboration and the research in more detail (Note: Links have been removed),

The team included scientists from the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, petroleum refining technology company UOP LLC and Utrecht University. To make this discovery, they reconstructed the first 3-D atomic map of an industrially relevant zeolite material to track down its key element, aluminum.

When things get steamy, structure changes

Zeolites are minerals made up of aluminum, silicon and oxygen atoms arranged in a three-dimensional crystalline structure. Though they look like white powder to the naked eye, zeolites have a sponge-like network of molecule-size pores. Aluminum atoms along these pores act like workers on an assembly line-they create active sites that give zeolites their catalytic properties.

Industry uses about a dozen synthetic zeolites as catalysts to process petroleum and chemicals. One major conversion process, called fluid catalytic cracking, depends on zeolites to produce the majority of the world’s gasoline. [emphasis mine]

To awaken active sites within zeolites, industry pretreats the material with heat and water, a process called steaming. But too much steaming somehow switches the sites off. Changing the conditions of steaming could extend the catalyst’s life, thus producing fuel more efficiently.

Scientists have long suspected that steaming causes aluminum to move around within the material, thus changing its properties. But until now aluminum has evaded detailed analysis.

Strip away the atoms

Most studies of zeolite structure rely on electron microscopy, which can’t easily distinguish aluminum from silicon because of their similar masses. Worse, the instrument’s intense electron beam tends to damage the material, changing its inherent structure before it’s seen.

Instead, the team of scientists turned to a characterization technique that had never before been successfully applied to zeolites. Called atom probe tomography, it works by zapping a sample with a pulsing laser, providing just enough energy to knock off one atom at a time. Time-of-flight mass spectrometers analyze each atom-at a rate of about 1,000 atoms per second. Unlike an electron microscope, this technique can distinguish aluminum from silicon.

Though atom probe tomography has been around for 50 years, it was originally designed to look at conductive materials, such as metals. Less conductive zeolites presented a problem.

PNNL materials scientist Danny Perea and his colleagues overcame this hurdle by adapting a Local Electrode Atom Probe at EMSL, the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory, a DOE Office of Science User Facility accessible to scientists around the world. Most attempts to image the material ended prematurely, when electromagnetic forces within the instrument vaporized the entire sample. The key to success was to find the right conditions to prepare a sample and then to coat it with a layer of metal to help provide conductivity and strength to withstand analysis.

After hours of blasting tens-of-millions of atoms, the scientists could reconstruct an atomic map of a sample about a thousand times smaller than the width of a human hair. These maps hold clues as to why the catalyst fails.

The news release reveals what the scientists were able to see for the first time,

The images confirmed what scientists have long suspected: Steaming causes aluminum atoms to cluster. Like workers crowded around one spot on the assembly line, this clustering effectively shuts down the catalytic factory.

The scientists even pinpointed the place where aluminum likes to cluster. Zeolite crystals often grow in overlapping sub-units, forming something like a 3-D Venn diagram. Scientists call the edge between two sub-units a grain boundary, and that’s where the aluminum clustered. The scientists suspect that open space along grain boundaries attracted the aluminum.

With the guidance of these atomic maps, industry could one day modify how it steams zeolites to produce a more efficient, longer lasting catalyst. The research team will next examine other industrially important zeolites at different stages of steaming to provide a more detailed map of this transformation.

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

Determining the location and nearest neighbours of aluminium in zeolites with atom probe tomography by Daniel E. Perea, Ilke Arslan, Jia Liu, Zoran Ristanović, Libor Kovarik, Bruce W. Arey, Johannes A. Lercher, Simon R. Bare, & Bert M. Weckhuysen.  Nature Communications 6, Article number: 7589 doi:10.1038/ncomms8589 Published 02 July 2015

This is an open access paper.

Hong Kong, MosquitNo, and Dengue fever

The most substantive piece I’ve written on dengue fever and a nanotechnology-enabled approach to the problem was a 2013 post explaining why the fever is of such concern, which also included information about a proposed therapeutic intervention by Nanoviricides. From the July 2, 2013 posting, here’s more about the magnitude of the problem,

… the WHO (World Health Organization) fact sheet no. 117,

The incidence of dengue has grown dramatically around the world in recent decades. Over 2.5 billion people – over 40% of the world’s population – are now at risk from dengue. WHO currently estimates there may be 50–100 million dengue infections worldwide every year.

Before 1970, only nine countries had experienced severe dengue epidemics. The disease is now endemic in more than 100 countries in Africa, the Americas, the Eastern Mediterranean, South-east Asia and the Western Pacific. The American, South-east Asia and the Western Pacific regions are the most seriously affected.

Cases across the Americas, South-east Asia and Western Pacific have exceeded 1.2 million cases in 2008 and over 2.3 million in 2010 (based on official data submitted by Member States). Recently the number of reported cases has continued to increase. In 2010, 1.6 million cases of dengue were reported in the Americas alone, of which 49 000 cases were severe dengue.

Not only is the number of cases increasing as the disease spreads to new areas, but explosive outbreaks are occurring. The threat of a possible outbreak of dengue fever now exists in Europe and local transmission of dengue was reported for the first time in France and Croatia in 2010 and imported cases were detected in three other European countries. A recent (2012) outbreak of dengue on Madeira islands of Portugal has resulted in over 1800 cases and imported cases were detected in five other countries in Europe apart from mainland Portugal.

An estimated 500 000 people with severe dengue require hospitalization each year, a large proportion of whom are children. About 2.5% of those affected die.

Fast forwarding to 2015, this latest information about dengue fever features a preventative approach being taken in Hong Kong according to a July 5, 2015 article by Timmy Sung  for the South China Morning Post,

Dutch insect repellent innovator Mosquitno targets Hong Kong as dengue fever cases rise

A Dutch company says it has invented an insect repellent using nanotechnology which can keep clothes and homes mosquito-free for up to three months.

Mosquitno has been invited by a government body to begin trading in Hong Kong as the number of cases reported in the city of the deadly mosquito-borne dengue fever rises.

The new repellent does not include the active ingredient used in many insect repellents, DEET, which has question marks surrounding its safety.

Figures from the Department of Health show the number of dengue fever cases reported rose 8 per cent last year, to 112. There were 34 cases in the first five months of this year, 36 per cent more than in the same period last year. Mosquitoes are most active in the summer months.

MosquitNo does use an ingredient, IR3535, which has caused concern (from Sung’s article),

The Consumer Council has previously warned that IR3535-based mosquito repellents can break down plastic materials and certain synthetic fibres, but Wijnen [Erwin Wijnen, director of the {Mosqutino’s} brand development and global travel retailing] said the ingredient combined with nanotechnology is safe and there was no possibility it would damage clothes.

I was not able to find out more about the company’s nanotechnology solution as applied to MosquitNo,

The NANO Series is a revolutionary, innovative technology designed by scientists especially for MosquitNo. This line utilizes this-breaking insect repellent technology in various products including wipes, textile spray, fabric softener and bracelets. This technology and our trendy applications are truly industry-changing and MosquitNo is at the leading edge!

The active component in all our awesome products within this range is IR3535.

That’s it for technical detail. At least, for now.

“This is the best microscope we could ever dream of”—Rice University (US) gets new microscope

I believe it’s Emilie Ringe who’s hosting this video about the new microscope at Rice University (Texas, US) and, as you will be able to tell, she’s thrilled.

A June 29, 2015 news item on Nanotechnology Now explains some of Ringe’s excitement,

Rice University, renowned for nanoscale science, has installed microscopes that will allow researchers to peer deeper than ever into the fabric of the universe.

The Titan Themis scanning/transmission electron microscope, one of the most powerful in the United States, will enable scientists from Rice as well as academic and industrial partners to view and analyze materials smaller than a nanometer — a billionth of a meter — with startling clarity.

The microscope has the ability to take images of materials at angstrom-scale (one-tenth of a nanometer) resolution, about the size of a single hydrogen atom.

Images will be captured with a variety of detectors, including X-ray, optical and multiple electron detectors and a 4K-resolution camera, equivalent to the number of pixels in the most modern high-resolution televisions. The microscope gives researchers the ability to create three-dimensional structural reconstructions and carry out electric field mapping of subnanoscale materials.

“Seeing single atoms is exciting, of course, and it’s beautiful,” said Emilie Ringe, a Rice assistant professor of materials science and nanoengineering and of chemistry. “But scientists saw single atoms in the ’90s, and even before. Now, the real breakthrough is that we can identify the composition of those atoms, and do it easily and reliably.” Ringe’s research group will operate the Titan Themis and a companion microscope that will image larger samples.

A June 29, 2015 Rice University news release, which originated the news item, provides more information about electron microscopes, incident electron beams, and the specifics of the second new piece of equipment being installed,

Electron microscopes use beams of electrons rather than rays of light to illuminate objects of interest. Because the wavelength of electrons is so much smaller than that of photons, the microscopes are able to capture images of much smaller things with greater detail than even the highest-resolution optical microscope.

“The beauty of these newer instruments is their analytical capabilities,” Ringe said. “Before, in order to see single atoms, we had to work a machine for an entire day and get it just right and then take a picture and hold our breath. These days, seeing atoms is routine.

“And now we can probe a particular atom’s chemical composition. Through various techniques, either via scattering intensity, X-rays emission or electron-beam absorption, we can figure out, say, that we’re looking at a palladium atom or a carbon atom. We couldn’t do that before.”

Ringe said when an electron beam ejects a bound electron from a target atom, it creates an empty site. “That can be filled by another electron within the atom, and the energy difference between this electron and the missing electron is emitted as an X-ray,” she said. “That X-ray is like a fingerprint, which we can read. Different types of atoms have different energies.”

She said the incident electron beam loses a bit of energy when it knocks an atom’s electron loose, and that energy loss can also be measured with a spectroscope to identify the atom. The X-ray and electron techniques are independent but complementary. “Typically, you use either/or, and it depends on what element you’re looking at,” Ringe said.

The second instrument, a Helios NanoLab 600 DualBeam microscope, will be used for three-dimensional imaging, analysis of larger samples and preparation of thin slices of samples for the more powerful Titan next door.

Both tools reside in the university’s Brockman Hall for Physics, which opened in 2011 and features sophisticated vibration-dampening capabilities. The microscopes require the best possible isolation from vibration, electric fields and acoustic noise to produce the best images, Ringe said.

“We have wanted a high-end microscopy facility at Rice because so many of us are working on nanomaterials,” said Pulickel Ajayan, a professor and founding chair of Rice’s Department of Materials Science and NanoEngineering. “This has been an issue because in order to be competitive you have to have the best atomic-scale characterization techniques. This will put us in business in terms of imaging and understanding new materials.”

He said the facility will position Rice as one of the most competitive institutions to recruit students and faculty, attract grants and publish groundbreaking results.

“A visual image of something on an atomic level can give you so much more information than a few numbers can,” said Peter Rossky, a theoretical chemist and dean of Rice’s Wiess School of Natural Sciences. Comparing images of the same material taken by an older electron microscope and the Titan Themis was like “the difference between a black-and-white TV and high-definition color,” he said.

Ringe said Rice’s Titan is a fourth-generation model manufactured in the Netherlands. It’s the latest and most powerful model and the first to be installed in the United States.

“Taking a complex image — not just a picture but a spectrum image that has lots of energy information — in the older model would take about 35 minutes,” she said. “By that time, the electron beam has destroyed whatever you were trying to look at.

“With this generation, you have the data you need in about two minutes. You can generate a lot more data more quickly. It’s not just better; it’s enabling.”

Edwin Thomas, the William and Stephanie Sick Dean of Rice’s George R. Brown School of Engineering, expects the new instruments to ignite the already strong research culture at the university. “This is going to influence the kind of people who will be attracted to apply to and then come to Rice,” said Thomas, a materials scientist. “I’m sure there will be people on campus who, once they find out the capabilities, are going to shift their compasses and take advantage of these machines. The whole point is to have an impact on science and society.”

Rice plans to host a two-day workshop in September to introduce the microscopes and their capabilities to the research community at the university and beyond. [emphasis mine] Beginning this summer, Ringe said, the electron microscopy center will be open to Rice students and faculty as well as researchers from other universities and industry.

Ringe looks forward to bringing researchers into the new microscopy lab — and to the research that will emerge.

“I hope everyone’s going to come out with a blockbuster paper with images from these instruments,” she said. “I would like every paper from Rice to have fantastic, crystal-clear, atomic-resolution images and the best possible characterization.”

To sum this up, there are two new pieces of equipment (Titan Themis scanning/transmission electron microscope and Helios NanoLab 600 DualBeam microscope) in Rice University’s 2011 facility, Brockman Hall for Physics. They are very excited about having the most powerful microscope in the US (the Titan) and hope to be holding a two-day workshop on these new microscopes for the research community at Rice and at other institutions.

Crowdfund nano spies for cancer

University of Groningen (Netherlands) researcher, Romana Schirhagl, is crowdfunding her development of a new technique (using nanodiamonds) for biomedical research which would allow observation of free radicals in cells. From a June 25, 2015 news item on Nanowerk,

Romana Schirhagl, a researcher at the University Medical Center Groningen, is hoping to garner public support for a new form of cancer research. Schirhagl wants to introduce miniscule diamonds into living cancer cells. Like spies, these nanodiamonds will be on a mission to reveal the secrets of the cell. Schirhagl applies a unique combination of knowledge and techniques from physics, chemistry and medicine in the research. This could form the basis of new and improved cancer drugs.

A June 16, 2015 University of Groningen press release, which originated the news item, provides background information for the research,

The research of Schirhagl and her research group in the department of Biomedical Engineering focuses on the behaviour of free radicals in a cell. These radicals have an important role in the body. They are sometimes extremely useful, as in the immune system, where they help fight bacteria and viruses, but sometimes very harmful, as when they actually harm healthy cells and can cause cancer. As the radicals only exist for a fraction of a second, it is difficult to tell them apart and study them.

New technique

Schirhagl wants to apply a new technique that currently is mainly used in fundamental physics but looks extremely promising for biomedical research. The technique is based on very small diamonds that can ‘sense’ the presence of magnetic fields from the radicals. The nanodiamonds are fluorescent and change in luminosity as a response to their environment. This makes it easier to determine which radicals occur when and how they work. This information should make it possible to improve cancer drugs – which themselves sometimes use free radicals – or even develop new ones.

Unexpectedly, the crowdfunding platform is the University of Groningen’s own. You can find out more about Nano spies here. To date the project has raised over 6,600 Euros towards a goal of 20,000 Euros.

D-Wave passes 1000-qubit barrier

A local (Vancouver, Canada-based, quantum computing company, D-Wave is making quite a splash lately due to a technical breakthrough.  h/t’s Speaking up for Canadian Science for Business in Vancouver article and Nanotechnology Now for Harris & Harris Group press release and Economist article.

A June 22, 2015 article by Tyler Orton for Business in Vancouver describes D-Wave’s latest technical breakthrough,

“This updated processor will allow significantly more complex computational problems to be solved than ever before,” Jeremy Hilton, D-Wave’s vice-president of processor development, wrote in a June 22 [2015] blog entry.

Regular computers use two bits – ones and zeroes – to make calculations, while quantum computers rely on qubits.

Qubits possess a “superposition” that allow it to be one and zero at the same time, meaning it can calculate all possible values in a single operation.

But the algorithm for a full-scale quantum computer requires 8,000 qubits.

A June 23, 2015 Harris & Harris Group press release adds more information about the breakthrough,

Harris & Harris Group, Inc. (Nasdaq: TINY), an investor in transformative companies enabled by disruptive science, notes that its portfolio company, D-Wave Systems, Inc., announced that it has successfully fabricated 1,000 qubit processors that power its quantum computers.  D-Wave’s quantum computer runs a quantum annealing algorithm to find the lowest points, corresponding to optimal or near optimal solutions, in a virtual “energy landscape.”  Every additional qubit doubles the search space of the processor.  At 1,000 qubits, the new processor considers 21000 possibilities simultaneously, a search space which is substantially larger than the 2512 possibilities available to the company’s currently available 512 qubit D-Wave Two. In fact, the new search space contains far more possibilities than there are particles in the observable universe.

A June 22, 2015 D-Wave news release, which originated the technical details about the breakthrough found in the Harris & Harris press release, provides more information along with some marketing hype (hyperbole), Note: Links have been removed,

As the only manufacturer of scalable quantum processors, D-Wave breaks new ground with every succeeding generation it develops. The new processors, comprising over 128,000 Josephson tunnel junctions, are believed to be the most complex superconductor integrated circuits ever successfully yielded. They are fabricated in part at D-Wave’s facilities in Palo Alto, CA and at Cypress Semiconductor’s wafer foundry located in Bloomington, Minnesota.

“Temperature, noise, and precision all play a profound role in how well quantum processors solve problems.  Beyond scaling up the technology by doubling the number of qubits, we also achieved key technology advances prioritized around their impact on performance,” said Jeremy Hilton, D-Wave vice president, processor development. “We expect to release benchmarking data that demonstrate new levels of performance later this year.”

The 1000-qubit milestone is the result of intensive research and development by D-Wave and reflects a triumph over a variety of design challenges aimed at enhancing performance and boosting solution quality. Beyond the much larger number of qubits, other significant innovations include:

  •  Lower Operating Temperature: While the previous generation processor ran at a temperature close to absolute zero, the new processor runs 40% colder. The lower operating temperature enhances the importance of quantum effects, which increases the ability to discriminate the best result from a collection of good candidates.​
  • Reduced Noise: Through a combination of improved design, architectural enhancements and materials changes, noise levels have been reduced by 50% in comparison to the previous generation. The lower noise environment enhances problem-solving performance while boosting reliability and stability.
  • Increased Control Circuitry Precision: In the testing to date, the increased precision coupled with the noise reduction has demonstrated improved precision by up to 40%. To accomplish both while also improving manufacturing yield is a significant achievement.
  • Advanced Fabrication:  The new processors comprise over 128,000 Josephson junctions (tunnel junctions with superconducting electrodes) in a 6-metal layer planar process with 0.25μm features, believed to be the most complex superconductor integrated circuits ever built.
  • New Modes of Use: The new technology expands the boundaries of ways to exploit quantum resources.  In addition to performing discrete optimization like its predecessor, firmware and software upgrades will make it easier to use the system for sampling applications.

“Breaking the 1000 qubit barrier marks the culmination of years of research and development by our scientists, engineers and manufacturing team,” said D-Wave CEO Vern Brownell. “It is a critical step toward bringing the promise of quantum computing to bear on some of the most challenging technical, commercial, scientific, and national defense problems that organizations face.”

A June 20, 2015 article in The Economist notes there is now commercial interest as it provides good introductory information about quantum computing. The article includes an analysis of various research efforts in Canada (they mention D-Wave), the US, and the UK. These excerpts don’t do justice to the article but will hopefully whet your appetite or provide an overview for anyone with limited time,

A COMPUTER proceeds one step at a time. At any particular moment, each of its bits—the binary digits it adds and subtracts to arrive at its conclusions—has a single, definite value: zero or one. At that moment the machine is in just one state, a particular mixture of zeros and ones. It can therefore perform only one calculation next. This puts a limit on its power. To increase that power, you have to make it work faster.

But bits do not exist in the abstract. Each depends for its reality on the physical state of part of the computer’s processor or memory. And physical states, at the quantum level, are not as clear-cut as classical physics pretends. That leaves engineers a bit of wriggle room. By exploiting certain quantum effects they can create bits, known as qubits, that do not have a definite value, thus overcoming classical computing’s limits.

… The biggest question is what the qubits themselves should be made from.

A qubit needs a physical system with two opposite quantum states, such as the direction of spin of an electron orbiting an atomic nucleus. Several things which can do the job exist, and each has its fans. Some suggest nitrogen atoms trapped in the crystal lattices of diamonds. Calcium ions held in the grip of magnetic fields are another favourite. So are the photons of which light is composed (in this case the qubit would be stored in the plane of polarisation). And quasiparticles, which are vibrations in matter that behave like real subatomic particles, also have a following.

The leading candidate at the moment, though, is to use a superconductor in which the qubit is either the direction of a circulating current, or the presence or absence of an electric charge. Both Google and IBM are banking on this approach. It has the advantage that superconducting qubits can be arranged on semiconductor chips of the sort used in existing computers. That, the two firms think, should make them easier to commercialise.

Google is also collaborating with D-Wave of Vancouver, Canada, which sells what it calls quantum annealers. The field’s practitioners took much convincing that these devices really do exploit the quantum advantage, and in any case they are limited to a narrower set of problems—such as searching for images similar to a reference image. But such searches are just the type of application of interest to Google. In 2013, in collaboration with NASA and USRA, a research consortium, the firm bought a D-Wave machine in order to put it through its paces. Hartmut Neven, director of engineering at Google Research, is guarded about what his team has found, but he believes D-Wave’s approach is best suited to calculations involving fewer qubits, while Dr Martinis and his colleagues build devices with more.

It’s not clear to me if the writers at The Economist were aware of  D-Wave’s latest breakthrough at the time of writing but I think not. In any event, they (The Economist writers) have included a provocative tidbit about quantum encryption,

Documents released by Edward Snowden, a whistleblower, revealed that the Penetrating Hard Targets programme of America’s National Security Agency was actively researching “if, and how, a cryptologically useful quantum computer can be built”. In May IARPA [Intellligence Advanced Research Projects Agency], the American government’s intelligence-research arm, issued a call for partners in its Logical Qubits programme, to make robust, error-free qubits. In April, meanwhile, Tanja Lange and Daniel Bernstein of Eindhoven University of Technology, in the Netherlands, announced PQCRYPTO, a programme to advance and standardise “post-quantum cryptography”. They are concerned that encrypted communications captured now could be subjected to quantum cracking in the future. That means strong pre-emptive encryption is needed immediately.

I encourage you to read the Economist article.

Two final comments. (1) The latest piece, prior to this one, about D-Wave was in a Feb. 6, 2015 posting about then new investment into the company. (2) A Canadian effort in the field of quantum cryptography was mentioned in a May 11, 2015 posting (scroll down about 50% of the way) featuring a profile of Raymond Laflamme, at the University of Waterloo’s Institute of Quantum Computing in the context of an announcement about science media initiative Research2Reality.

Customizing bacteria (E. coli) into squares, circles, triangles, etc.

The academic paper for this latest research from Delft University of Technology (TU Delft, Netherlands), uses the term ‘bacterial sculptures,’ an intriguing idea that seems to have influenced the artistic illustration accompanying the research announcement.

Artistic rendering live E.coli bacteria that have been shaped into a rectangle, triangle, circle, and square (from front to back). Colors indicate the density of the Min proteins that represent a snapshot in time (based on actual data), as these proteins oscillate back and forth within the bacterium, to determine the mid plane of the cell for cellular division. Image credit:  ‘Image Cees Dekker lab TU Delft / Tremani’

Artistic rendering live E.coli bacteria that have been shaped into a rectangle, triangle, circle, and square (from front to back). Colors indicate the density of the Min proteins that represent a snapshot in time (based on actual data), as these proteins oscillate back and forth within the bacterium, to determine the mid plane of the cell for cellular division.
Image credit: ‘Image Cees Dekker lab TU Delft / Tremani’

A June 22, 2015 news item on Nanowerk provides more insight into the research (Note: A link has been removed),

The E.coli bacterium, a very common resident of people’s intestines, is shaped as a tiny rod about 3 micrometers long. For the first time, scientists from the Kavli Institute of Nanoscience at Delft University have found a way to use nanotechnology to grow living E.coli bacteria into very different shapes: squares, triangles, circles, and even as letters spelling out ‘TU Delft’. They also managed to grow supersized E.coli with a volume thirty times larger than normal. These living oddly-shaped bacteria allow studies of the internal distribution of proteins and DNA in entirely new ways.

In this week’s Nature Nanotechnology (“Symmetry and scale orient Min protein patterns in shaped bacterial sculptures”), the scientists describe how these custom-designed bacteria still manage to perfectly locate ‘the middle of themselves’ for their cell division. They are found to do so using proteins that sense the cell shape, based on a mathematical principle proposed by computer pioneer Alan Turing in 1953.

A June 22, 2015 TU Delft press release, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

Cell division

“If cells can’t divide properly, biological life wouldn’t be possible. Cells need to distribute their cell volume and genetic materials equally into their daughter cells to proliferate.”, says prof. Cees Dekker, “It is fascinating that even a unicellular organism knows how to divide very precisely. The distribution of certain proteins in the cell is key to regulating this, but how exactly do those proteins get that done?”


As the work of the Delft scientist exemplifies, the key here is a process discovered by the famous Alan Turing in 1953. Although Turing is mostly known for his role in deciphering the Enigma coding machine and the Turing Test, the impact of his ‘reaction-diffusion theory’ on biology might be even more spectacular. He predicted how patterns in space and time emerge as the result of only two molecular interactions – explaining for instance how a zebra gets its stripes, or how an embryo hand develops five fingers.

MinD and MinE

Such a Turing process also acts with proteins within a single cell, to regulate cell division. An E.coli cell uses two types of proteins, known as MinD and MinE, that bind and unbind again and again at the inner surface of the bacterium, thus oscillating back and forth from pole to pole within the bacterium every minute. “This results in a low average concentration of the protein in the middle and high concentrations at the ends, which drives the division machinery to the cell center”, says PhD-student Fabai Wu, who ran the experiments. “As our experiments show, the Turing patterns allow the bacterium to determine its symmetry axes and its center. This applies to many bacterial cell shapes that we custom-designed, such as squares, triangles and rectangles of many sizes. For fun, we even made ‘TUDelft’ and ‘TURING’ letters. Using computer simulations, we uncovered that the shape-sensing abilities are caused by simple Turing-type interactions between the proteins.”

Actual data for live E.coli bacteria that have been shaped into the letters TUDELFT.
The red color shows the cytosol contents of the cell, while the green color shows the density of the Min proteins, representing a snapshot in time, as these proteins oscillate back and forth within the bacterium to determine the mid plane of the cell for cellular division. The letters are about 5 micron high.
Image credit:  ‘Fabai Wu, Cees Dekker lab at TU Delft’

Spatial control for building synthetic cells

“Discovering this process is not only vital for our understanding of bacterial cell division – which is important in developing new strategies for antibiotics. But the approach will likely also be fruitful to figuring out how cells distribute other vital systems within a cell, such as chromosomes”, says Cees Dekker. “The ultimate goal in our research is to be able to completely build a living cell from artificial components, as that is the only way to really understand how life works. Understanding cell division – both the process that actually pinches off the cell into two daughters and the part that spatially regulates that machinery – is a major part of that.”

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

Symmetry and scale orient Min protein patterns in shaped bacterial sculptures by Fabai Wu, Bas G. C. van Schie, Juan E. Keymer, & Cees Dekker. Nature Nanotechnology (2015) doi:10.1038/nnano.2015.126 Published online 22 June 2015

This paper is behind a paywall but there does seem to be another link (in the excerpt below) which gives you a free preview via ReadCube Access (according to the TU Delft press release),

The DOI for this paper will be 10.1038/nnano.2015.126. Once the paper is published electronically, the DOI can be used to retrieve the abstract and full text by adding it to the following url: http://dx.doi.org/


Computer modeling of engineered nanoparticles in surface water, the NanoDUFLOW model

A June 4, 2015 news item on phys.org features research that could be very helpful in understanding the impact that engineered nanoparticles (ENP) have on the water in our environment,

Researchers of Wageningen University (Netherlands) provide the world’s first spatiotemporally explicit model that simulates the behaviour and fate of engineered nanoparticles (ENPs) in surface waters. Wageningen researcher Bart Koelmans: “This is important in order to assure safe nanotechnology. We do need to have an assessment of the risks of ENPs to man and the environment.”

Nanotechnology is developing fast, with the fast growing emission of less than 100 nm engineered nanoparticles as a consequence. ENPs are hard to measure in the environment so that exposure assessments have to rely on modelling. Previous models could only predict average background concentrations on a continental or national scale.

A June 3, 2015 Wageningen University press release, which originated the news item, describes the computer model,

The new NanoDUFLOW model however, developed by Joris Quik, Jeroen de Klein and Bart Koelmans and recently described in Water Research magazine, is capable of simulating the concentrations of ENPs, and their homo- and heteroaggregates in space and time, for any hydrological flow regime of a river. Under the hood of NanoDUFLOW is an ‘engine’ that calculates all relevant interactions among 35 types of particles including the ENPs, and that decides upon aggregation, settling or prolonged flow in the river. The rate of these interactions depends on the flow conditions in the river, which are calculated in the hydrology module of NanoDUFLOW. This module can be set to match the channel structure of any catchment as defined by the user, allowing for a great flexibility.

Development of the model

Development of the model took a long and winding road. ENPs are emerging chemicals with unique properties, which implies that some new process descriptions needed to be developed. One of the main parameters in this new type of models is the attachment efficiency. The attachment efficiency is the chance that two particles stay together when they collide, a chance that depends on the nature of the colliding particles and the chemistry of the water. A smart calculation method needed to be developed that enabled the estimation of the attachment efficiency from laboratory experiments with ENPs and natural particles and waters collected in the field.

Using NanoDUFLOW for the risk assessment of nanomaterials

In order to assure safe nanotechnology, society calls for an assessment of the risks of ENPs to man and the environment. A risk assessment for ENPs requires an assessment of ENP exposure, and of the effects caused by ENPs, which then can be compared in a risk characterisation. Whereas previous screening-level models still may be first choice for lower tiers in the risk assessment, NanoDUFLOW is believed to be useful for higher tiers of the risk assessment, where site specific risks need to be addressed. Simulations with NanoDUFLOW showed the occurrence of clear ENP contamination ‘hot spots’ in the water column and in sediments. Furthermore, NanoDUFLOW was capable of simulating the speciation of ENPs over different size fractions. This speciation defines the ecotoxicologically relevant fractions of ENPs, for a variety of species traits. Also in this respect NanoDUFLOW will add to refining the risk assessment for ENPs.

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

Spatially explicit fate modelling of nanomaterials in natural waters by Joris T. K. Quika, Jeroen J.M. de Klein, & Albert A. Koelmans. Water Research Volume 80, 1 September 2015, Pages 200–208  doi:10.1016/j.watres.2015.05.025

This paper is behind a paywall.

Kenya and a draft nanotechnology policy

I don’t often stumble across information about Kenya’s nanotechnology efforts (my last was in a Sept. 1, 2011 posting) but I’m going include my latest find here even though I can’t track down the original source for the information. From an April 29, 2015 news item on SpyGhana (original source: Xinhua News Agency,  official press agency of the People’s Republic of China),

The Kenyan government will soon adopt a comprehensive policy to promote use of nanotechnology in diverse fields like medicine, agriculture, manufacturing and environment.

“Nanotechnology as a science promises more for less. The competitive edge for Kenya as a developing nation lies in robust investments in this technology,” Njeri Wamae, chairman of National Commission for Science, Technology and Innovation (NACOSTI), said in Nairobi.

Nanotechnology is relatively new in Kenya though the government has prioritized its development through research, training and setting up of supportive infrastructure.

Wamae noted that enactment of a nanotechnology policy will position Kenya as a hub for emerging technologies that would revolutionalize key sectors of the economy.

Policy briefs from Kenya’s scientific research body indicates that globally, nanotechnology was incorporated into manufacturing goods worth over 30 billion U.S. dollars in 2005.

The briefs added that nanotechnology related business was worth 2.6 trillion dollars by 2015. Kenya has borrowed best practices from industrialized countries and emerging economies to develop nanotechnology.

Professor Erastus Gatebe, an official at Kenya Industrial Research and Development Institute (KIRDI), noted that China and India offers vital lessons on harnessing nanotechnology to propel industrial growth.

This draft policy seems to be the outcome of a number of initiatives including Nanotechnologies for Development in India, Kenya and the Netherlands: Towards a Framework for Democratic Governance of Risks in Developing Countries, WOTRO (2010 – 2014) from the African Technology Policy Studies (ATPS) Network,

The ATPS has secured funding for a new Integrated Program (IP) on “Nanotechnologies for Development in India, Kenya and the Netherlands: Towards a Framework for Democratic Governance of Risks in Developing Countries, January 2010 – 2014, in liaison with partners in Europe and India. This IP which is led by Prof. Wiebe Bijker of the University of Maastricht, the Netherlands addresses the inevitable risks and benefits associated with emerging technologies, such as nanotechnology through a triangulation of PhD and Post-Doctoral positions drawn from Africa (2), India (1) and the Netherlands (2) based at the University of Maastricht but address core areas of the nanotechnology governance in Africa, India and the Netherlands. The program will be coordinated by Prof. Wiebe Bijker, the University of Maastricht, in the Netherlands; with the University of Hyderabad, India; the ATPS and the University of Nairobi, Kenya as partners.

Nanotechnology events and discussions played in important role in Kenya’s 2013 National Science, Technology and Innovation (ST&I) Week by Daphne Molewa (on the South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement [SAASTA] website),

The National Science, Technology and Innovation (ST&I) Week, organised by the Ministry of Higher Education, Science and Technology, is a major event on the annual calendar of the Kenyan Government.

The theme for 2013, “Science, Technology and Innovation for the realisation of Kenya’s Vision 2030 and beyond” is aligned with the national vision to transform Kenya into a newly industrialised, middle-income country providing a high-quality life to all its citizens in a safe and secure environment by the year 2030. pemphasis mine]

Nanotechnology, the science of the future

SAASTA representatives Mthuthuzeli Zamxaka and Sizwe Khoza were invited to participate in this year’s festival in Nairobi [Kenya] on behalf of the Nanotechnology Public Engagement Programme (NPEP).

Zamxaka delivered a stirring presentation titled Nanotechnology Public Engagement: The Case of South Africa. He introduced the topic of nanotechnology, focusing on engagement, outreach and awareness. …

Zamxaka touched on a number of nanotechnologies that are currently being applied, such as the research conducted by the Johns Hopkins University in Maryland on biodegradable nano-sized particles that can easily slip through the body’s sticky and viscous mucus secretions to deliver a sustained-release medication cargo. It is believed that these nanoparticles, which degrade over time into harmless components, could one day carry life-saving drugs to patients suffering from dozens of health conditions, including diseases of the eye, lung, gut or female reproductive tract.

For anyone interested , look here for Kenya’s Vision 2030. Harkening back to the first news item and the mention of NACOSTI, Kenya’s National Commission for Science, Technology and Innovation, it can be found here.

FibeRio and VF Corporation want their nanofiber technology to lead in apparel and footwear markets

An April 8, 2015 news item on Azonano describes a new business partnership,

FibeRio Technology Corporation, the total nanofiber solutions company, today announced a strategic partnership with VF Corporation, a global leader in branded lifestyle apparel, footwear and accessories, to develop and commercialize next-generation, performance apparel fabrics leveraging FibeRio’s proprietary nanotechnology.

The partnership centers on FibeRio’s Forcespinning® technology platform and its ability to produce unique nanofiber material in high volumes. VF intends to incorporate FibeRio’s capabilities and expertise across its three Global Innovation Centers which focus on advancements in performance apparel, footwear and jeanswear.

An April 8, 2015 FibeRio news release provides more details, including these about the respective companies which help to contextualize the deal,

About FibeRio Technology Corporation
FibeRio is the efficiency and performance layer expert offering composite media improvement services including nanofiber membrane development, pilot production for limited launches and performance layer supply. The Fiber Engine series delivers on the industry’s need for high output, versatile, yet economic nanofiber production solutions. For more information visit www.fiberiotech.com

About VF Corporation
VF Corporation (NYSE: VFC) is a global leader in the design, manufacture, marketing and distribution of branded lifestyle apparel, footwear and accessories. The company’s highly diversified portfolio of 30 powerful brands spans numerous geographies, product categories, consumer demographics and sales channels, giving VF a unique industry position and the ability to create sustainable, long-term growth for our customers and shareholders. The company’s largest brands are The North Face®, Vans®, Timberland®, Wrangler®, Lee® and Nautica®. For more information, visit www.vfc.com.

There are the usual “we’re thrilled and about to do exciting things” quotes along with a dearth of details explaining how nanofibers are going to lead to higher performance,

“VF’s Global Innovation Center strategy is centered on the pursuit of disruptive design and materials that will meaningfully redefine the future of apparel and footwear for our consumers,” said Dan Cherian, Vice President, VF Global Innovation Centers. “Our partnership with FibeRio is a great step toward the co-development of proprietary, high-performance nanofiber materials that will help push the boundaries of performance and explore the creation of new apparel and footwear market categories.”

FibeRio CEO Ellery Buchanan stated, “We are excited to partner with VF Corporation on our Forcespinning-based advanced nanofiber textiles. VF’s long history of brand strength and operational excellence along with our leading commercial scale nanofiber production expertise creates an excellent opportunity to proactively shape the competitive landscape.”

Nanofibers’ higher surface area and smaller pore size improves the characteristics of fibrous material. This enables performance levels in any given application to be materially improved using significantly less material in the end product, which also allows for lighter weight and lower cost. [emphasis mine] FibeRio’s Forcespinning technology is the only technology platform capable of both commercial scale melt and solution spinning nanofibers. This provides a more sustainable method of production because melt spinning does not require solvents. [emphasis mine] Additionally, Forcespinning can be used to solution spin with vastly smaller amounts of solvents than traditional nanofiber production processes such as electrospinning.

Using less material could be considered a good thing, assuming it doesn’t mean that consumers need to purchase the item more frequently. The sustainability aspects such as no solvents or lesser amounts of solvent sound good unless increased demand means that a lesser amount becomes a greater amount.

I look forward to learning more as this partnership develops. One final note, I wonder if these folks are competitive with Teijin-Aramid (a Japanese-Dutch company in the Teijin Group), a company which does a lot of work with nanofibers last mentioned here in a Sept. 24, 2014 posting (scroll down about 60% of the way),

Still talking about textile fibres but on a completely different track, I received a news release this morning (Sept. 25, 2014) from Teijin Aramid about carbon nanotubes and fibres,

Researchers of Teijin Aramid, based in the Netherlands, and Rice University in the USA are awarded with the honorary ‘Paul Schlack Man-Made Fibers Prize’ for corporate-academic partnerships in fiber research. Their new super fibers are now driving innovation in aerospace, healthcare, automotive, and (smart) clothing.

I also found an April 12, 2012 post about Teijin Fibers (another Teijin Group company) and their work with nanofibers and golf gloves and athletic socks.