Tag Archives: North Carolina State University

Ditch toxic ammonia and grow your vertically aligned carbon nanofibers with ambient air say scientists and their high school colleagues

Ditching the ammonia used in the processing of vertically aligned carbon nanofibers is both healthier, occupationally and environmentally, and more profitable as it paves the way to easier manufacturing. Scientists at North Carolina State University (NCSU) working alongside high school students have demonstrated their new technique, according to a March 24, 2014 news item on Nanowerk,

Researchers from North Carolina State University have demonstrated that vertically aligned carbon nanofibers (VACNFs) can be manufactured using ambient air, making the manufacturing process safer and less expensive. VACNFs hold promise for use in gene-delivery tools, sensors, batteries and other technologies.

The March 24, 2014 NCSU news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, features an image illustrating VACNFs and more details about the research,

Researchers have shown they can grow vertically-aligned carbon nanofibers using ambient air, rather than ammonia gas. Click to enlarge image. (Image free for use. Credit: Anatoli Melechko.)

Researchers have shown they can grow vertically-aligned carbon nanofibers using ambient air, rather than ammonia gas. Click to enlarge image. (Image free for use. Credit: Anatoli Melechko.)

Conventional techniques for creating VACNFs rely on the use of ammonia gas, which is toxic. And while ammonia gas is not expensive, it’s not free.

“This discovery makes VACNF manufacture safer and cheaper, because you don’t need to account for the risks and costs associated with ammonia gas,” says Dr. Anatoli Melechko, an adjunct associate professor of materials science and engineering at NC State and senior author of a paper on the work. “This also raises the possibility of growing VACNFs on a much larger scale.”

In the most common method for VACNF manufacture, a substrate coated with nickel nanoparticles is placed in a vacuum chamber and heated to 700 degrees Celsius. The chamber is then filled with ammonia gas and either acetylene or acetone gas, which contain carbon. When a voltage is applied to the substrate and a corresponding anode in the chamber, the gas is ionized. This creates plasma that directs the nanofiber growth. The nickel nanoparticles free carbon atoms, which begin forming VACNFs beneath the nickel catalyst nanoparticles. However, if too much carbon forms on the nanoparticles it can pile up and clog the passage of carbon atoms to the growing nanofibers.

Ammonia’s role in this process is to keep carbon from forming a crust on the nanoparticles, which would prevent the formation of VACNFs.

“We didn’t think we could grow VACNFs without ammonia or a hydrogen gas,” Melechko says. But he tried anyway.

The researchers had some unlikely collaborators who inspired them to try a new approach (from the news release),

Melechko’s team tried the conventional vacuum technique, using acetone gas. However, they replaced the ammonia gas with ambient air – and it worked. The size, shape and alignment of the VACNFs were consistent with the VACNFs produced using conventional techniques.

“We did this using the vacuum technique without ammonia,” Melechko says. “But it creates the theoretical possibility of growing VACNFs without a vacuum chamber. If that can be done, you would be able to create VACNFs on a much larger scale.”

Melechko also highlights the role of two high school students involved in the work: A. Kodumagulla and V. Varanasi, who are lead authors of the paper. [emphases mine] “This discovery would not have happened if not for their approach to the problem, which was free from any preconceptions,” Melechko says. “I think they’re future materials engineers.”

Kudos to the students! Dr. Melechko should also be lauded for his flexible attitude towards collaboration and research and for his acknowledgment of the students both in this news release and in the published paper where they have lead author status.

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

Aerosynthesis: Growth of Vertically-aligned Carbon Nanofibres with Air DC Plasma by A. Kodumagulla, V. Varanasi, R. C. Pearce, W. C. Wu, D. K. Hensley, J. B. Tracy, T. E. McKnight and A. V. Melechko. Nanomaterials and Nanotechnology DOI: 10.5772/58449

This is an open access paper in an open access journal.

Nano info on food labels wanted by public in the US?

There’s some social science research about nanotechnology and food labeling in the US making its rounds on the internet. From an Oct. 28, 2013 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

New research from North Carolina State University and the University of Minnesota finds that people in the United States want labels on food products that use nanotechnology – whether the nanotechnology is in the food or is used in food packaging. The research (“Hungry for Information: Public Attitudes Toward Food Nanotechnology and Labeling”) also shows that many people are willing to pay more for the labeling.

Study participants were particularly supportive of labeling for products in which nanotechnology had been added to the food itself, though they were also in favor of labeling products in which nanotechnology had only been incorporated into the food packaging.

The Oct. 28, 2013 North Carolina State University (NCSU) news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, has a title that can be viewed as misleading  especially in light of how other news media have interpreted it,

Public wants labels for food nanotech — and they’re willing to pay for it

Yes but it’s not exactly ‘the public’ (from the news release),

“We wanted to know whether people want nanotechnology in food to be labeled, and the vast majority of the participants in our study do,” says Dr. Jennifer Kuzma, senior author of a paper on the research and Goodnight-Glaxo Wellcome Distinguished Professor of Public Administration at NC State. “Our study is the first research in the U.S. to take an in-depth, focus group approach to understanding the public perception of nanotechnology in foods.” [emphasis mine]

The researchers convened six focus groups – three in Minnesota and three in North Carolina – and gave study participants some basic information about nanotechnology and its use in food products. Participants were then asked a series of questions addressing whether food nanotechnology should be labeled. Participants were also sent a follow-up survey within a week of their focus group meeting. [emphasis mine]

Since ‘focus group’ isn’t likely to grab attention in a headline whoever wrote the news release decided on a more dramatic approach citing the ‘public’ which resulted in this still more dramatic headline for an Oct. 29, 2013 news item on Red Orbit (Note: Links have been removed),

Most Americans Want To See Labels On Their Nanofoods

Americans overwhelmingly want to know when they are eating food products that use nanotechnology, and are happy to pay the additional labeling costs, according to a new study published this month in the journal Review of Policy Research.

“Our study is the first research in the United States to take an in-depth, focus group approach to understanding the public perception of nanotechnology in foods,” said Dr. Jennifer Kuzma of North Carolina State University, the study’ s senior author. [emphasis mine] “We wanted to know whether people want nanotechnology in food to be labeled, and the vast majority of the participants in our study do.”

Curious, I read the paper (which is open access),

Hungry for Information: Public Attitudes Toward Food Nanotechnology and Labeling by Jonathan Brown, University of Minnesota; Jennifer Kuzma, North Carolina State University. Published: Online Oct. 7 [2013] in Review of Policy Research DOI: 10.1111/ropr.12035

First off, this study is, by my standards, a well written piece of research. The writers have grounded their work in the literature,  explained their approach and methodology, and provided many appendices including one with the script used by the focus group moderators. Surprisingly, I’ve read more than one piece of ‘social science research’ which did not provide one or more of the previously mentioned aspects essential to a basic, solid research paper. In other words, there are a lot of sloppy social science research papers out there. Thankfully, this is not one of them. That said, I do have a comment about the paper’s title and a nit to pick regarding the methodology.

The paper’s title has a ‘look at me’ quality which has found its way into the news release and ultimately some of the headlines in various online publications (including this post). The paper’s title in the context of a publication called Review of Policy Research is less problematic due to its audience, i.e., policy wonks who are likely to discount the title as simply an attempt to get attention. The point is that the audience for Review of Policy Research is not likely to take that title at face value, i.e., uncritically. However, as this ‘look at me’ title is rewritten and makes its way through various media outlets, the audience changes to one that is much more likely to take it at face value.

Researchers are in a bind. They want attention for their work but can risk media coverage which distorts their findings. As for the level of distortion to be found, here’s information about the methodology and sample (participants), from the research paper,

Seven focus groups, 90 minutes in length and ranging in size from seven to ten participants, were conducted between September 2010 and January 2011 in the Minnesota cities of Minneapolis, Richfield, and Bloomington, and the North Carolina cities of Raleigh, Garner, and Cary. [emphasis mine' Cities were selected based on the main city location, the largest suburb, and finally a randomly selected city between 30,000 and 60,000 residents, all within the counties of Hennepin, Minnesota, and Wake, North Carolina.

Participants were recruited using a stratified random sample, with the goal of having equal female and male numbers in each group, while matching a demographic county profile. Those who had a prior background in or extensive knowledge of nanotechnology were excluded from participation. The profiles were based on age, sex, race, education, family household income, and ideology (liberal, moderate, and conservative) criteria and generated by means of census data in conjunction with information supplied from select city community centers. Telephone and cell phone samples for each city were acquired and used to recruit 12 participants for each focus group, with the expectation of 75 percent attendance per group. Participants were given light dinner refreshments and $100 cash for their participation.

A total of 56 participants partook in one of the seven focus groups (n1 = 8, n2 = 10, n3 = 8, n4 = 7, n5 = 8, n6 = 7, and n7  = 8). The overall demographic distribution contained more males (64 percent, n = 36) versus females (36 percent, n = 20); whites/Caucasians (84 percent, n = 47) versus blacks/African Americans (11 percent, n = 6) and Asians/Pacific Islanders (4 percent, n = 2); and those with a postgraduate or professional degree (27 percent, n = 15) versus college graduate (23 percent, n = 13), some college (16 percent, n = 9), high school graduate (14 percent, n = 8), technical college graduate (7 percent, n = 4), some high school (5 percent, n = 3), some technical college (2 percent, n = 1), and “Other” education (2 percent, n = 1). Race/ethnicity and education had n = 1 and n = 2 “No Answer” responses, respectively. The most common age bracket was 50–60 (36 percent, n = 20) compared with “Over 60” (23 percent, n = 13), 41–49 (23 percent, n = 13), 31–39 (7 percent, n = 4), and “Under 30” (7 percent, n = 4). Additionally, two provided “No Answer” for their ages.

So, 56 people, at the most. from two different states are representing Americans. Under Study Limitations subhead, the researchers outline some of their own concerns regarding this research (from the paper),

Several limitations of our focus group study are worth noting. The small sample size (n = 56 for focus groups and worksheet responses; n = 34 for postsurvey) reduces inferential power for the quantitative worksheet and postsurvey results.  Additionally, a small sample size coupled with underrepresentation for multiple demographics (e.g., non-Caucasians, females, those under age 40, and so on) restricts generalizability of results, whether quantitative or qualitative. For focus groups, however, this is to be expected as the goal is in-depth and quality discussions that explore issues heretofore under-investigated. [all emphases mine]

The nature of focus group execution presents further challenges. For example, introverted individuals may not participate as readily, and this potential imbalance skews the discussion toward the extraverted participants’ ideas. A technique to mitigate this bias, which was employed by our moderators, is to directly ask quieter participants questions once a topic is generated. Although directed calling is effective at ensuring all views on a specific topic are eventually heard, more talkative participants nonetheless exert essential control as their initial contributions determine the topics to be covered. Extraverts will thus be overrepresented in the conversation flow.

Another challenge with employing focus groups relates to moderator-controlled variations. While one discussion guide (i.e., set of specific guiding questions) was used for all focus groups (see Appendix A), the moderator frequently had to ask various follow-up questions to maintain substantive dialog. Consequently, several impromptu questions stimulating important exchanges were not raised uniformly in all groups. Fortunately, such variability was not widely problematic, as all focus groups consisted of the same six phases with the same preliminary prompts. Below we present the results from our study that relate to food and nanotechnology products and their labeling.

The results from the research are suggestive but this work does not offer proof that Americans want nano information on their food labels and are will to pay more. However this research lays the groundwork for future queries as the researchers themselves note in their Discussion at the end of the paper,

This study is the first, to our knowledge, to concentrate on public attitudes toward nanofood labeling in the United States. As such, we took an exploratory and grounded theory approach to reveal insights that could be important for developing policies and programs. Focus group discussions, in-group response worksheets, and postsurvey results from this study begin to form a picture of what people view as important for nanofood governance and labeling more specifically. Future studies will be needed to further explore these results, as there were several limitations to this study including the small sample sizes for the postsurvey (n = 34) and focus groups (n = 56) in the context of applying inferential statistics, sample underrepresentation for some demographic variables, potential overrepresentation of extroverted opinions in focus group conversations, and intergroup moderator consistency (see also the “Study Limitations” section above). These limitations are often associated with focus group research.

The researchers also describe the various themes that emerged from the focus group discussions,

Labeling discussions activated numerous topics directly and indirectly related to nanofood product labeling. Skepticism and the influence of historical experiences were two themes that emerged in this study that have not been extensively covered in previous literature on public perception of nanotechnology. Participants were skeptical concerning actions, intentions, and promised outcomes, often without reference to particular organizations or their trust of them. In part, skepticism stemmed from historical experiences with other product domains like pesticides, nutritional and allergenicity labels, and prior food safety claims. Participants relied heavily on previous experiences related to nanofood labeling in order to form opinions on this new domain.

I encourage you to read the research yourself. As these things go, this study is quite readable. However, I do have one final nit to pick, household income. While the researchers used the data to develop their stratified, random sample, they don’t seem to have taken income into account when analyzing the results or considering problems in the methodology. It seems to me that household income might be a factor in how people feel about paying more for food labels that include nano information.

This is the second nanofood-themed post I’ve published recently, see my Oct. 23, 2013 posting for a report of a food and nano panel held at the Guardian’s (newspaper) offices in London, UK>

Squishy wonderfulness: new possibilities for hydrogels

i have two items for this posting about hydrogels and biomimicry (aka biomimetics). One concerns the use of light to transform hydrogels and the other concerns the potential for using hydrogels in ‘soft’ robotics. First, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh have found a way to make hydrogels change their shapes, from an Aug. 1, 2013 news item on Nanowerk,

Some animals—like the octopus and cuttlefish—transform their shape based on environment, fending off attackers or threats in the wild. For decades, researchers have worked toward mimicking similar biological responses in non-living organisms, as it would have significant implications in the medical arena.

Now, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh have demonstrated such a biomimetic response using hydrogels—a material that constitutes most contact lenses and microfluidic or fluid-controlled technologies.

The Aug. 1, 2013 University of Pittsburgh news release, which originated the news item, offers this description from the paper’s lead authorl,

“Imagine an apartment with a particular arrangement of rooms all in one location,” said lead author Anna Balazs, Pitt Distinguished Professor of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering in the Swanson School of Engineering. “Now, consider the possibility of being able to shine a particular configuration of lights on this structure and thereby completely changing not only the entire layout, but also the location of the apartment. This is what we’ve demonstrated with hydrogels.”

The news release goes on to provide more specific details about the work,

Together with Olga Kuksenok, research associate professor in the Swanson School, Balazs experimented with a newer type of hydrogel containing spirobenzopyran molecules. Such materials had been previously shown to form distinct 2-D patterns on initially flat surfaces when introduced to varying displays of light and are hydrophilic (“liking” water) in the dark but become hydrophobic (“disliking” water) under blue light illumination. Therefore, Balazs and Kuksenok anticipated that light could be a useful stimulus for tailoring the gel’s shape.

Using computer modeling, the Pitt team demonstrated that the gels “ran away” when exposed to the light, exhibiting direct, sustained motion. The team also factored in heat—combining the light and local variations in temperature to further control the samples’ motions. Controlling a material with light and temperature could be applicable, Balazs said, in terms of regulating the movement of a microscopic “conveyor belt” or “elevator” in a microfluidic device.

“This theoretical modeling points toward a new way of configuring the gels into any shape, while simultaneously driving the gels to move due to the presence of light,” said Kuksenok.

“Consider, for example, that you could take one sheet of hydrogel and, with the appropriate use of light, fashion it into a lens-shaped object, which could be used in optical applications”, added Balazs.

The team also demonstrated that the gels could undergo dynamic reconfiguration, meaning that, with a different combination of lights, the gel could be used for another purpose. Reconfigurable systems are particularly useful because they are reusable, leading to a significant reduction in cost.

“You don’t need to construct a new device for every new application,” said Balazs. “By swiping light over the system in different directions, you can further control the movements of a system, further regulating the flow of materials.”

Balazs said this type of dynamic reconfiguration in response to external cues is particularly advantageous in the realm of functional materials. Such processes, she said, would have a dramatic effect on manufacturing and sustainability, since the same sample could be used and reused for multiple applications.

The team will now study the effect of embedding microscopic fibers into the gel to further control the shape and response of the material to other stimuli.

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

Modeling the Photoinduced Reconfiguration and Directed Motion of Polymer Gels by Olga Kuksenok and Anna C. Balazs. Article first published online: 31 JUL 2013, Adv. Funct. Mater.. doi: 10.1002/adfm.201203876

© 2013 WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

This paper is behind a paywall. However, there is a video of Anna Balazs’s June 27, 2013 talk (Reconfigurable assemblies of active, auto-chemotactic gels) on these gels at the Isaac Newton Institute for Mathematical Sciences.

Meanwhile, researchers at North Carolina State University are pursuing a different line of query involving hydrogels. From an Aug. 2, 2013 North Carolina State University news release (also on EurekAlert),

Researchers from North Carolina State University have developed a new technique for creating devices out of a water-based hydrogel material that can be patterned, folded and used to manipulate objects. The technique holds promise for use in “soft robotics” and biomedical applications.

“This work brings us one step closer to developing new soft robotics technologies that mimic biological systems and can work in aqueous environments,” says Dr. Michael Dickey, an assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at NC State and co-author of a paper describing the work.

“In the nearer term, the technique may have applications for drug delivery or tissue scaffolding and directing cell growth in three dimensions, for example,” says Dr. Orlin Velev, INVISTA Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at NC State, the second senior author of the paper.

The technique they’ve developed uses hydrogels, which are water-based gels composed of water and a small fraction of polymer molecules. Hydrogels are elastic, translucent and – in theory – biocompatible. The researchers found a way to modify and pattern sections of hydrogel electrically by using a copper electrode to inject positively charged copper ions into the material. Those ions bond with negatively charged sites on the polymer network in the hydrogel, essentially linking the polymer molecules to each other and making the material stiffer and more resilient. The researchers can target specific areas with the electrodes to create a framework of stiffened material within the hydrogel. The resulting patterns of ions are stable for months in water.

“The bonds between the biopolymer molecules and the copper ions also pull the molecular strands closer together, causing the hydrogel to bend or flex,” Velev says. “And the more copper ions we inject into the hydrogel by flowing current through the electrodes, the further it bends.”

The researchers were able to take advantage of the increased stiffness and bending behavior in patterned sections to make the hydrogel manipulate objects. For example, the researchers created a V-shaped segment of hydrogel. When copper ions were injected into the bottom of the V, the hydrogel flexed – closing on an object as if the hydrogel were a pair of soft tweezers. By injecting ions into the back side of the hydrogel, the tweezers opened – releasing the object.

The researchers also created a chemically actuated “grabber” out of an X-shaped segment of hydrogel with a patterned framework on the back of the X. When the hydrogel was immersed in ethanol, the non-patterned hydrogel shrank. But because the patterned framework was stiffer than the surrounding hydrogel, the X closed like the petals of a flower, grasping an object. When the X-shaped structure was placed in water, the hydrogel expanded, allowing the “petals” to unfold and release the object. Video of the hydrogels in action is available here.

“We are currently planning to use this technique to develop motile, biologically compatible microdevices,” Velev says.

“It’s also worth noting that this technique works with ions other than copper, such as calcium, which are biologically relevant,” Dickey says.

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

Reversible patterning and actuation of hydrogels by electrically assisted ionoprinting by Etienne Palleau, Daniel Morales, Michael D. Dickey & Orlin D. Velev. Nature Communications 4, Article number: 2257 doi:10.1038/ncomms3257 Published 02 August 2013

This article is behind a paywall.

Liquid metal taking shape

A North Carolina State University July 9, 2013 news release (also on EurekAlert) avoids a Terminator 2: Judgment Day movie reference (which I am making) in its description of building 3D structures out of liquid metal,

“It’s difficult to create structures out of liquids, because liquids want to bead up. But we’ve found that a liquid metal alloy of gallium and indium reacts to the oxygen in the air at room temperature to form a ‘skin’ that allows the liquid metal structures to retain their shapes,” says Dr. Michael Dickey, an assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at NC State and co-author of a paper describing the work.

The researchers developed multiple techniques for creating these structures, which can be used to connect electronic components in three dimensions. White it is relatively straightforward to pattern the metal “in plane” – meaning all on the same level – these liquid metal structures can also form shapes that reach up or down.

One technique involves stacking droplets of liquid metal on top of each other, much like a stack of oranges at the supermarket. The droplets adhere to one another, but retain their shape – they do not merge into a single, larger droplet. Video of the process is available here.

Another technique injects liquid metal into a polymer template, so that the metal takes on a specific shape. The template is then dissolved, leaving the bare, liquid metal in the desired shape. The researchers also developed techniques for creating liquid metal wires, which retain their shape even when held perpendicular to the substrate.

Dickey’s team is currently exploring how to further develop these techniques, as well as how to use them in various electronics applications and in conjunction with established 3-D printing technologies.

The lead researcher, Michael Dickey has produced an image of liquid metal drops in a 3D structure,

Researchers have developed three-dimensional structures out of liquid metal. Image: Michael Dickey.

Researchers have developed three-dimensional structures out of liquid metal. Image: Michael Dickey.

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

3D Printing of Free Standing Liquid Metal Microstructures by Collin Ladd,  Ju-Hee So, John Muth, Michael D. Dickey. Article first published online: 4 JUL 2013 DOI: 10.1002/adma.201301400

Copyright © 2013 WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

This paper is behind a paywall.

For anyone who isn’t familiar with Terminator 2 and doesn’t understand why it was mentioned  in the context of this posting, here’s an excerpt from the Wikipedia essay (Note: Links and footnotes have been removed),

The T-1000 is a fictional robotic assassin and the main antagonist in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Created by the series main antagonist Skynet, the T-1000 is a shapeshifter whose body is composed of a mimetic poly-alloy (liquid metal) body that allows it to assume the form of other objects or people of equal mass. [emphasis mine]

Steering cockroaches in the lab and in your backyard—cutting edge neuroscience

In this piece I’m mashing together two items, both involving cockroaches and neuroscience and, in one case, disaster recovery. The first item concerns research at the North Carolina State University where video game techniques are being used to control cockroaches. From the June 25, 2013 news item on ScienceDaily,

North Carolina State University researchers are using video game technology to remotely control cockroaches on autopilot, with a computer steering the cockroach through a controlled environment. The researchers are using the technology to track how roaches respond to the remote control, with the goal of developing ways that roaches on autopilot can be used to map dynamic environments — such as collapsed buildings.

The researchers have incorporated Microsoft’s motion-sensing Kinect system into an electronic interface developed at NC State that can remotely control cockroaches. The researchers plug in a digitally plotted path for the roach, and use Kinect to identify and track the insect’s progress. The program then uses the Kinect tracking data to automatically steer the roach along the desired path.

The June 25, 2013 North Carolina State University news release, which originated the news item, reveals more details,

The program also uses Kinect to collect data on how the roaches respond to the electrical impulses from the remote-control interface. This data will help the researchers fine-tune the steering parameters needed to control the roaches more precisely.

“Our goal is to be able to guide these roaches as efficiently as possible, and our work with Kinect is helping us do that,” says Dr. Alper Bozkurt, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at NC State and co-author of a paper on the work.

“We want to build on this program, incorporating mapping and radio frequency techniques that will allow us to use a small group of cockroaches to explore and map disaster sites,” Bozkurt says. “The autopilot program would control the roaches, sending them on the most efficient routes to provide rescuers with a comprehensive view of the situation.”

The roaches would also be equipped with sensors, such as microphones, to detect survivors in collapsed buildings or other disaster areas. “We may even be able to attach small speakers, which would allow rescuers to communicate with anyone who is trapped,” Bozkurt says.

Bozkurt’s team had previously developed the technology that would allow users to steer cockroaches remotely, but the use of Kinect to develop an autopilot program and track the precise response of roaches to electrical impulses is new.

The interface that controls the roach is wired to the roach’s antennae and cerci. The cerci are sensory organs on the roach’s abdomen, which are normally used to detect movement in the air that could indicate a predator is approaching – causing the roach to scurry away. But the researchers use the wires attached to the cerci to spur the roach into motion. The wires attached to the antennae send small charges that trick the roach into thinking the antennae are in contact with a barrier and steering them in the opposite direction.

Meanwhile for those of us without laboratories, there’s the RoboRoach Kickstarter project,

Our Roboroach is an innovative marriage of behavioral neuroscience and neural engineering. Cockroaches use the antennas on their head to navigate the world around them. When these antennas touch a wall, the cockroach turns away from the wall. The antenna of a cockroach contains neurons that are sensitive to touch and smell.

The backpack we invented communicates directly to the [cockroach's] neurons via small electrical pulses. The cockroach undergoes a short surgery (under anesthesia) in which wires are placed inside the antenna. Once it recovers, a backpack is temporarily placed on its back.

When you send the command from your mobile phone, the backpack sends pulses to the antenna, which causes the neurons to fire, which causes the roach to think there is a wall on one side. The result? The roach turns! Microstimulation is the same neurotechnology that is used to treat Parkinson’s Disease and is also used in Cochlear Implants.

This product is not a toy, but a tool to learn about how our brains work. Using the RoboRoach, you will be able to discover a number of interesting things about nature:

Neural control of Behaviour: First and foremost you will see in real-time how the brain respondes to sensory stimuli.

Learning and Memory: After a few minutes the cockroach will stop responding to the RoboRaoch microstimulation. Why? The brain learns and adapts. That is what brains are designed to do. You can measure the time to adaptation for various stimulation frequencies.

Adaptation and Habituation: After placing the cockroach back in its homecage, how long does it take for him to respond again? Does he adapt to the stimuli more quickly?

Stimuli Selection: What range of frequencies works for causing neurons to fire? With this tool, you will be able to select the range of stimulation to see what works best for your prep. Is it the same that is used by medical doctors stimulating human neurons? You will find out.

Effect of Randomness: For the first time ever… we will be adding a “random” mode to our stimulus patterns. We, as humans, can adapt easily to periodic noises (the hum a refrigerator can be ignored, for example). So perhaps the reason for adaptation is our stimulus is periodic. Now you can select random mode and see if the RoboRoach adapts as quickly.. or at all!

Backyard Brains (mentioned here in my March 28, 2013 posting about neurons, dance, and do-it-yourself neuroscience; another mashup), the organization initiating this Kickstarter campaign, has 13 days left to make its goal  of $10,000 (as of today, June 26, 2013 at 10:00 am PDT, the project has received $9,774 in pledges).

Pledges can range from $5 to $500 with incentives ranging from a mention on their website to delivery of RoboRoach Kits (complete with cockroaches, only within US borders).

This particular version of the RoboRoach project was introduced by Greg Gage at TEDGlobal 2103. Here’s what Karen Eng had to say about the presentation in her June 12, 2013 posting on the TED [technology, entertainment, design] blog,

Talking as fast and fervently as a circus busker, TED Fellow Greg Gage introduces the world to RoboRoach — a kit that allows you create a cockroach cyborg and control its movements via an iPhone app and “the world’s first commercially available cyborg in the history of mankind.”

“I’m a neuroscientist,” says Gage, “and that means I had to go to grad school for five years just to ask questions about the brain.” This is because the equipment involved is so expensive and complex that it’s only available in university research labs, accessible to PhD candidates and researchers. But other branches of science don’t have this problem — “You don’t have to get a PhD in astronomy to get a telescope and study the sky.”

Yet one in five of us will be diagnosed with a neurological disorder — for which we have no cures. We need more people educated in neuroscience to investigate these diseases. That’s why Gage and his partners at Backyard Brains are developing affordable tools that allow educators to teach electrophysiology from university down to the fifth grade level.

As he speaks, he and his partner, Tim Marzullo, release a large South American cockroach wearing an electronic backpack — which sends an electrical current directly into the cockroach’s antenna nerves — onto the table on stage. A line of green spikes appear, accompanied by a sound like rain on a tent or popcorn popping. “The common currency of the brain are the spikes in the neurons,” Gage explains. “These are the neurons that are inside of the antenna, but that’s also what your brain sounds like. Your thoughts, your hopes, your dreams, all encoded into these spikes. People, this is reality right here — the spikes are everything you know!” As Greg’s partner swipes his finger across his iPhone, the RoboRoach swerves left and right, sometimes erratically going in a full confused circle.

So why do this? “This is the exact same technology that’s used to treat Parkinson’s disease and make cochlear implants for deaf people. If we can get these tools into hands of kids, we can start the neurological revolution.”

After Gage’s talk, Chris Anderson asks about the ethics of using the cockroaches for these purposes. Gage explains that this is microstimulation, not a pain response — the evidence is that the roach adapts quickly to the stimulation. (In fact, some high school students have discovered that they can control the rate of adaptation in an unusual way — by playing music to the roaches over their iPods.) After the experiment, he says, the cockroaches are released to go back to do what cockroaches normally do. So don’t worry — no animals were irretrievably harmed in the making of this TED talk.

Anya Kamenetz in her June 7, 2013 article for Fast Company about the then upcoming presentation also mentions insect welfare,

Attaching the electronic “backpack” to an unwitting arthropod is not for the squeamish. You must sand down the top of the critter’s head in order to attach a plug, “Exactly like the Matrix,” says Backyard Brains cofounder Greg Gage. Once installed, the system relays electrical impulses over a Bluetooth connection from your phone to the cockroach’s brain, via its antennae. …

Gage claims that he has scientific proof that neither the surgery nor the stimulation hurts the roaches. The proof, according to Gage, is that the stimulation stops working after a little while as the roaches apparently decide to ignore it.

Kamenetz goes on to note that this project has already led to a discovery. High school students in New York City found that cockroaches did not habituate to randomized electrical signals as quickly as they did to steady signals. This discovery could have implications for treatment of diseases such as Parkinson’s.

The issue of animal use/welfare vis à vis scientific experiments is not an easy one and I can understand why Gage might be eager to dismiss any suggestions that the cockroaches are being hurt.  Given how hard it is to ignore pain, I am willing to accept Gage’s dismissal of the issue until such time as he is proven wrong. (BTW, I am curious as to how one would know if a cockroach is experiencing pain.)

I have one more thought for the road. I wonder whether the researchers at North Carolina State University are aware of the RoboRoach work and are able to integrate some of those findings into their own research (and vice versa).

US multicenter (Nano GO Consortium) study of engineered nanomaterial toxicology

Nano Go Consortium is the name they gave a multicenter toxicology study of engineered nanomaterials which has pioneered a new approach  in the US to toxicology research. From the May 6, 2013 news item on Azonano,

For the first time, researchers from institutions around the country have conducted an identical series of toxicology tests evaluating lung-related health impacts associated with widely used engineered nanomaterials (ENMs).

The study [on rodents] provides comparable health risk data from multiple labs, which should help regulators develop policies to protect workers and consumers who come into contact with ENMs.

The May 6, 2013 North Carolina State University news release, which originated the news item, describes the results from one of two studies that were recently published by the Nano GO Consortium in Environmental Health Perspectives,

The researchers found that carbon nanotubes, which are used in everything from bicycle frames to high performance electronics, produced inflammation and inflammatory lesions in the lower portions of the lung. However, the researchers found that the nanotubes could be made less hazardous if treated to remove excess metal catalysts used in the manufacturing process or modified by adding carboxyl groups to the outer shell of the tubes to make them more easily dispersed in biological fluids.

The researchers also found that titanium dioxide nanoparticles also caused inflammation in the lower regions of the lung. Belt-shaped titanium nanoparticles caused more cellular damage in the lungs, and more pronounced lesions, than spherical nanoparticles.

Here’s a link to and a citation for this study on rodents,

Interlaboratory Evaluation of Rodent Pulmonary Responses to Engineered Nanomaterials: The NIEHS NanoGo Consortium by James C. Bonner, Rona M. Silva, Alexia J. Taylor, Jared M. Brown, Susana C. Hilderbrand, Vincent Castranova, Dale Porter, Alison Elder, Günter Oberdörster, Jack R. Harkema, Lori A. Bramble, Terrance J. Kavanagh, Dianne Botta, Andre Nel, and Kent E. Pinkerton. Environ Health Perspect (): .doi:10.1289/ehp.1205693  Published: May 06, 2013

And the information for the other study which this consortium has published,

Interlaboratory Evaluation of in Vitro Cytotoxicity and Inflammatory Responses to Engineered Nanomaterials: The NIEHS NanoGo Consortium by Tian Xia, Raymond F. Hamilton Jr, James C. Bonner, Edward D. Crandall, Alison Elder, Farnoosh Fazlollahi, Teri A. Girtsman, Kwang Kim, Somenath Mitra, Susana A. Ntim, Galya Orr, Mani Tagmount8, Alexia J. Taylor, Donatello Telesca, Ana Tolic, Christopher D. Vulpe, Andrea J. Walker, Xiang Wang, Frank A. Witzmann, Nianqiang Wu, Yumei Xie, Jeffery I. Zink, Andre Nel, and Andrij Holian. Environ Health Perspect (): .doi:10.1289/ehp.1306561 Published: May 06, 2013

Environmental Health Perspectives is an open access journal and the two studies are being offered as ‘early’ publication efforts and will be updated with the full studies at a later date.

Most interesting for me is the editorial offered by four of the researchers involved in the Nano GO Consortium, from the editorial,

Determining the health effects of ENMs presents some unique challenges. The thousands of ENMs in use today are made from an enormous range of substances, vary considerably in size, and take a diversity of shapes, including spheres, cubes, cones, tubes, and other forms. They are also produced in different laboratories across the world using a variety of methods. In the scientific literature, findings on the properties and toxicity of these materials are mixed and often difficult to compare across studies. To improve the reliability and reproducibility of data in this area, there is a need for uniform research protocols and methods, handling guidelines, procurement systems, and models.

Although there is still much to learn about the toxicity of ENMs, we are fortunate to start with a clean slate: There are as yet no documented incidences of human disease due to ENM exposure (Xia et al. 2009). Because ENMs are manmade rather than natural substances, we have an opportunity to design, manufacture, and use these materials in ways that allow us to reap the maximum benefits—and minimal risk—to humans.

With $13 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (2009), the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) awarded 13 2-year grants to advance research on the health impacts of ENMs (NIEHS 2013). [emphasis mine] Ten grants were awarded through the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Grand Opportunities program and three were funded through the NIH Challenge Grants program. One goal of this investment was to develop reliable, reproducible methods to assess exposure and biological response to nanomaterials.

Within the framework of the consortium, grantees designed and conducted a series of “round-robin” experiments in which similar or identical methods were used to perform in vitro and in vivo tests on the toxicity of selected nanomaterials concurrently at 13 different laboratories.

Conducting experiments in a round-robin format within a consortium structure is an unfamiliar approach for most researchers. Although some researchers acknowledged that working collaboratively with such a large and diverse group at times stretched the limits of their comfort zones, the consortium ultimately proved to be “greater than the sum of its parts,” resulting in reliable, standardized protocols that would have been difficult for researchers to achieve by working independently. Indeed, many participants reflected that participating in the consortium not only benefitted their shared goals but also enhanced their individual research efforts. The round-robin approach and the overall consortium structure may be valuable models for other emerging areas of science.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the Consortium’s editorial, which is available in full,

Nano GO Consortium—A Team Science Approach to Assess Engineered Nanomaterials: Reliable Assays and Methods by Thaddeus T. Schug, Srikanth S. Nadadur, and Anne F. Johnson. Environ Health Perspect 121(2013). http://dx.doi.org/10.1289/ehp.1306866 [online 06 May 2013]

I like the idea of researchers working together across institutional and geographical boundaries as that can be a very powerful approach. I hope that won’t devolve into a form of institutionalized oppression where individual researchers are forced out or ignored. In general, it’s the outlier research that often proves to be truly groundbreaking, which often generates extraordinary and informal (and sometimes formal) resistance. For an example of groundbreaking work that was rejected by other researchers who banded together informally, there’s Dan Shechtman, 2011 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, famously faced hostility from his colleagues for years over his discovery of quasicrystals.

Emory University’s Shuming Nie discusses Iron Man 3 and nanotechnology and researchers develop an injectable nano-network

I have written about Iron Man 3 before (my May 11, 2012 posting) in the context of its nanotechnology inspirations, specifically, the Extremis Armor. For anyone not familiar with the story, I have a few bits which will bring you up to speed before getting to Shuming Nie’s commentary and some recent research into injectable nano-networks, which seems highly relevant to the Iron Man 3 discourse. First, here’s an excerpt from my May 11, 2012 posting,

In a search for Extremis, I found out that this story reboots the Iron Man mythology by incorporating nanotechnology and alchemy to create a new armor, the Extremis Armor, from the Extremis Armor website (I strongly suggest going to the website and reading the full text which includes a number of illustrative images if you find this sort of thing interesting),

When a bio-tech weapon of mass destruction was unleashed, Tony Stark threw himself onto the bleeding edge between science and alchemy, combining nanotechnology and his Iron Man armor.  The result, which debuted in Iron Man, Vol. IV, issue 5, was the Extremis Armor, Model XXXII, Mark I, which made him the most powerful hero in the world–but not without a price.

There were two key parts to this Extremis-enhanced suit.  The first part is the golden Undersheath, the protective interface between Stark’s nervous system and the second chief part, the External Suit Devices (ESDs), a.k.a. the red armor plating.

The Undersheath to the Iron Man suit components was super-compressed and stored in the hollows of Stark’s bones. The sheath material exited through skeletal pores and slid between all cells to self-assemble a new “skin” around him.  This skin provides a complete interface to the Iron Man suit components and can perform numerous other functions. (The process in reverse withdrew the Undersheath back into these specially modified areas of Tony Stark’s bone marrow tissue.)

The Undersheath is a nano-network that incorporates peptide-peptide logic (PPL), a molecular computational system made of superconducting plastic impregnated molecular chains. [my emphasis added for May.6.13 posting]  The PPL handles, among other things: memory, critical logic paths, comparative “truth” tables, automatic response look-up tables, data storage, communication, and external sensing material interface.

The lattice assembly is a stress-compression truss with powered interstitial joints.  This can surround the PPL material and guide it through Stark’s body.  This steerable, motile lattice framework is commanded by the PPL molecule computational mentality.  The metallic component to the lattice is a controlled mimetic artifact that can take on the characteristics of most elements.  Even unusual combinations of behaviors such as extreme hardness and flexibility.

The combination of the two nano-scale materials allows for a very dense non-traditional computer that can change the fabric of its design in very powerful ways. The incorporation of the Undersheath in Stark’s entire nervous system renders reflex-level computer responses to pan-spectrum stimuli.

Anthony Stark’s Bio/Metalo-Mimetic Material concept is a radical departure from the traditional solid-state underpinnings of his prior Iron Man suit designs.  Making use of nano-scale assembly technology, “smart” molecules can be made atom by atom. The design allows for simple computers to be linked into a massive parallel computer that synthesizes human thought protocols.

The External Suit Devices (ESDs), the red armor plates, were made via mega-nano technology that has assembled atoms into large, discreet effectors.  This allows for the plates to be collapsable to very small volumes for easy storage and carried in Stark’s briefcase. The ESDs were commanded by the Undersheath and were self-powered by high-capacity Kasimer plates.  They were equipped with large arrays of nano-fans that allow flight.  Armoring-up was done by drawing the suit to Stark via a vectored repulsor field, just lightly pushing them from different angles.

The armor’s memory-metal technology renders it lightweight and flexible while not in use, but extremely durable when polarized.  The armor was strong, of course, but it could be made even stronger by rerouting repulsor input to reinforce the armor’s mass.

Stark’s skin is now a part of the suit, when engaged.  [emphasis mine] Comfort is relative because the suit rapidly responds to any discomfort, from impacts to high temperatures, from itching to scratching.  The suit’s protocols include semi-autonomy when needed.  Where Stark ends and the suit begins is flexible.  The exact nature of the artificial Extremis Virus is not known (especially because Stark recompiled the dose, then tweaked the nutrients and suspended metals, radically altering Maya Hansen’s [the character Rebecca Hall will reputedly play] formulations).  The effect it has had on Stark’s body is to allow the presence of so much alien material within his body without trauma.

Because of the bio-interface between Tony and the armor, he could utilize the suit to its fullest potential and also instantly access computers and any digital system worldwide at the speed of thought.  He was biologically integrated with his armor, one with it, imbued with unprecedented powers and abilities.  He channeled and processed data, emergency signals, and satellite reconnaissance from every law enforcement, military, and intelligence service in the world–in his head.  He could send electronic signals and make phone calls with his mind.  He could see through satellites.  Plus he had the ability to transmit whatever he saw (from his visual cortex) to other people’s display screens.  The computer’s cybernetic link enables him to operate all of the armor’s functions, as well as providing a remote link to other computers (as Stark is now part of the armor this connection is seamless).  The armor’s system was connected to the global mainframe via StarkTech servers.

I also like this more generalized description of the technology in the Wikipedia essay on Extemis Comics (Note: A link has been removed),

Extremis has been referred to as a “virus” constantly since the story. The verbatim description offered by its inventor Maya Hansen, goes: “…Extremis is a super-soldier solution. It’s a bio-electronics package, fitted into a few billion graphite nanotubes and suspended in a carrier fluid. [emphasis mine] A magic bullet, like the original super-soldier serum—all fitted into a single injection. It hacks the body’s repair center—the part of the brain that keeps a complete blue print of the human body. When we’re injured, we refer to that area of the brain to heal properly. Extremis rewrites the repair center. In the first stage, the body essentially becomes an open wound. The normal human blueprint is being replaced with the Extremis blueprint. The brain is being told the body is wrong. Extremis protocol dictates that the subject be placed on life support and intravenously fed nutrients at this point. For the next two or three days, the patient remains unconscious within a cocoon of scabs. (…) Extremis uses the nutrients and body mass to grow new organs. Better ones…”

A Postmedia movie reviewer, Katherine Monk noted this about the plot in her May 3, 2013 review of Iron Man 3 ,

Apparently, back in the early days of genetic engineering, a brilliant, zit-faced scientist (Guy Pearce) offered Tony a piece of a lucrative patent that had the potential to alter the human body, and even regenerate amputated limbs.

Tony walked away from the offer as well as the pretty girl (Rebecca Hall) who worked for the genetic engineer, but in the opening sequence, we see the technology was successfully developed and tested. It makes people superhuman, but it can also make them spontaneously combust, leaving great craters and human casualties behind.

Now for the video commentary, Dr. Shuming Nie, Biomedical Engineering at Emory University, offers some scientific insight into the science and the fiction of ‘extremis’ as per Iron Man 3 in his YouTube video,

Keeping on the science theme,  researchers at North Carolina State University (NCSU) and other institutions announced an injectable nano-network for diabetics in a May 3, 2013 news release on EurekAlert,

In a promising development for diabetes treatment, researchers have developed a network of nanoscale particles that can be injected into the body and release insulin when blood-sugar levels rise, maintaining normal blood sugar levels for more than a week in animal-based laboratory tests. The work was done by researchers at North Carolina State University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Children’s Hospital Boston.

“We’ve created a ‘smart’ system that is injected into the body and responds to changes in blood sugar by releasing insulin, effectively controlling blood-sugar levels,” says Dr. Zhen Gu, lead author of a paper describing the work and an assistant professor in the joint biomedical engineering program at NC State and UNC Chapel Hill. “We’ve tested the technology in mice, and one injection was able to maintain blood sugar levels in the normal range for up to 10 days.”

Here’s how the smart system is achieved,

The new, injectable nano-network is composed of a mixture containing nanoparticles with a solid core of insulin, modified dextran and glucose oxidase enzymes. When the enzymes are exposed to high glucose levels they effectively convert glucose into gluconic acid, which breaks down the modified dextran and releases the insulin. The insulin then brings the glucose levels under control. The gluconic acid and dextran are fully biocompatible and dissolve in the body.

Each of these nanoparticle cores is given either a positively charged or negatively charged biocompatible coating. The positively charged coatings are made of chitosan (a material normally found in shrimp shells), while the negatively charged coatings are made of alginate (a material normally found in seaweed).

When the solution of coated nanoparticles is mixed together, the positively and negatively charged coatings are attracted to each other to form a “nano-network.” Once injected into the subcutaneous layer of the skin, the nano-network holds the nanoparticles together and prevents them from dispersing throughout the body. Both the nano-network and the coatings are porous, allowing blood – and blood sugar – to reach the nanoparticle cores.

“This technology effectively creates a ‘closed-loop’ system that mimics the activity of the pancreas in a healthy patient, releasing insulin in response to glucose level changes,” Gu says. “This has the potential to improve the health and quality of life of diabetes patients.”

For anyone who’s interested in researching further, heres’ a citation for and a link to the paper,

Injectable Nano-Network for Glucose-Mediated Insulin Delivery by Zhen Gu, Alex A. Aimetti, Qun Wang, Tram T. Dang, Yunlong Zhang, Omid Veiseh, Hao Cheng, Robert S. Langer, and Daniel G. Anderson. ACS Nano, Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/nn400630x Publication Date (Web): May 2, 2013

Copyright © 2013 American Chemical Society

The paper is behind a paywall. Meanwhile, there are discussions about moving these injectable nano-networks into human clinical trials. As Nie notes, Iron Man 3 hints at new medical technologies which will be achievable in the next 10 or so years, although we may have to wait 100 to 150 years for  Extremis armor.

Can you deflate your spike-studded balloon?

Researchers at North Carolina State University have developed a means for embedding carbon nanofiber spikes (or needles)  into an elastic-like membrane to create a studded balloon that could potentially be used for drug delivery according to a Jan. 15, 2013 news item on ScienceDailyOnline,

The research community is interested in finding new ways to deliver precise doses of drugs to specific targets, such as regions of the brain. One idea is to create balloons embedded with nanoscale spikes that are coated with the relevant drug. Theoretically, the deflated balloon could be inserted into the target area and then inflated, allowing the spikes on the balloon’s surface to pierce the surrounding cell walls and deliver the drug. The balloon could then be deflated and withdrawn.

But to test this concept, researchers first needed to develop an elastic material that is embedded with these aligned, nanoscale needles. That’s where the NC State [North Carolina State University] research team came in.

“We have now developed a way of embedding carbon nanofibers in an elastic silicone membrane and ensuring that the nanofibers are both perpendicular to the membrane’s surface and sturdy enough to impale cells,” says Dr. Anatoli Melechko, an associate professor of materials science and engineering at NC State and co-author of a paper on the work.

For some reason this description brought to mind medieval weapons of war such as this  flail (the ball

Flail-Klassischer-Flegel (Deutsch: Ein mit einem Lederriemen verzierter klassischer Flegel mit kugelförmigem Kopf und Kette als Faustriemen) Credit: Tim Avatar Bartel [downloaded from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Klassischer-Flegel.jpg]

Flail-Klassischer-Flegel (Deutsch: Ein mit einem Lederriemen verzierter klassischer Flegel mit kugelförmigem Kopf und Kette als Faustriemen) Credit: Tim Avatar Bartel [downloaded from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Klassischer-Flegel.jpg]

not the stick. There’s much more about the flail and its use as a weapon in this Wikipedia essay.

As for this nanoscaled balloon studded with carbon nanofibers, the Jan. 15, 2013 North Carolina State University news release, which originated the news item, goes on to describe the technique,

The researchers first “grew” the nanofibers on an aluminum bed, or substrate. They then added a drop of liquid silicone polymer. The polymer, nanofibers and substrate were then spun, so that centrifugal force spread the liquid polymer in a thin layer between the nanofibers – allowing the nanofibers to stick out above the surface. The polymer was then “cured,” turning the liquid polymer into a solid, elastic membrane. Researchers then dissolved the aluminum substrate, leaving the membrane embedded with the carbon nanofibers “needles.”

“This technique is relatively easy and inexpensive,” says Melechko, “so we are hoping this development will facilitate new research on targeted drug-delivery methods.”

The paper, “Transfer of Vertically Aligned Carbon Nanofibers to Polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS) while Maintaining their Alignment and Impalefection Functionality,” is published online in the journal ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces. Lead authors on the paper are Ryan Pearce, a Ph.D. student at NC State, and Justin Railsback, a former NC State student now pursuing a Ph.D. at Northwestern University. Co-authors are Melechko; Dr. Joseph Tracy, an assistant professor of materials science and engineering at NC State; Bryan Anderson and Mehmet Sarac, Ph.D. students at NC State; and Timothy McKnight of Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

It’s very interesting but I wonder how they plan to deflate the balloon and what will happen to the carbon nanofiber needles and balloon membrane after their usage?

ScienceOnline2013 conference preview

Before describing the upcoming ScienceOnline2013 conference, I should mention it is fully registered and there’s a waitlist for attendees. Here’s more from the ScienceOnline2013 Conference Info page,

ScienceOnline2013, the seventh annual conference exploring science on the Web, will take place Jan. 30-Feb. 2, 2013.

N.C. [North Carolina] State University will once again be our hosts, letting us use the spacious McKimmon Conference Center for our event.

Registration spaces are now full. Yes, we know that there are more people who want to come than we have room for. But the reason that we keep the size limited (450 people) [emphasis mine] is so that the conversation, camaraderie, and collaborations are maximized. We have some other ideas brewing for how more of you can benefit from the programming. Stay tuned.

The cost to registration [sic] for ScienceOnline2013 is $200 (NOTE: the actual cost to cover all the conference expenses is much more than your registration and we rely on our generous sponsors and supporters to make the conference affordable for you! You can help by connecting the organizers to potential sponsors, donors, and corporate partners). Registration includes the conference venue, all regular sessions (Wednesday workshops are extra), many of your meals, and more! We will have breakfast on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Lunch is provided on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, and evening food is covered for Thursday at a special yet-to-be announced event. We are still planning the details of the Wednesday night opening, but we will surely have adult beverages and hors d’oeuvres. You will be covering your own costs for dinner on Friday. And of course, coffee, other beverages, and snacks will be available throughout the three days.

As to why you might want to place yourself on the waitlist,

 Thursday, January 31

9:00am CONVERGE: Social Media is Out of This World; CONVERGE: Welcome & instructions for the day

10:00am Break (snacks in Figshare Café) 10:30am

Alternative Careers ARE the Mainstream!

Taking Your Degree to a New Level

Impressions Matter: Embracing art & design in research and science communication

Leading scientists towards openness

Narrative: What is it? How science writers use it?

Never Tell Me the Odds! (Part Deux, Asteroid Field Edition)

Science and medical blogging at institutions: How to avoid being that kind of corporate blog

Why should scientists ‘do’ outreach? (part I)


Break (snacks in Figshare Café)


Changing The Public Face of Science

Helping Scientists ‘Do’ Outreach (part II)

Inject some STEAM below the STEM – get in at the roots!

Open access or vanity press?

Public Statistics

Scientific Storytelling: Using Personal Narrative to Communicate Science

Summing it Up: The Data on the Cutting Room Floor

1:00pm Lunch: Neomonde


#Hashtags in the Academy: Engaging Students with Social Media

Broadening the Participation of Diverse Populations in Online Science

Hands-on math

Into the Unknown: What we don’t know, and how to talk about it

Science Art as Science Outreach

The Impact of Electronic and Open Notebooks on Science

Why Won’t the Science Deficit Model Die?

3:30pm Break (snacks in Figshare Café)


Accessibility for All Audiences

Blogging for the long haul

Lightwaves and Brainbows: Seductive Visual Metaphors at the Intersection of Science, Language and Art

Open Session

Science online and rethinking peer review

Tackling science denialism with a systematic game plan

“They said what?!”: Fighting bullshit in the scicomm ecosystem


Evening Social Event

I gather CONVERGE is the new word for Keynote and as it turns out, the speaker for the Friday, Feb. 1, 2013 9 am CONVERGE session is Baba Brinkman, a Canadian-born rapper, who has toured extensively with his Rap Guide to Evolution (the world’s only peer-reviewed science rap) and mounted it as one of his off Broadway shows in New York City. Brinkman also raps about some of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Gilgamesh, and dating, not necessarily together, in various shows he has mounted. There’s more in my Nov. 23, 2012 posting about his then opening Ingenious Nature show, a rap performance about dating and evolutionary psychology.

NERCS—a great nano acronym (Nanosystems ERCs)—engineering research centers

It’s a bit complicated, isn’t it? Here’s the straight scoop from the Sept. 11, 2012 news item on Nanowerk,

The National Science Foundation (NSF) recently awarded $55.5 million to university consortia to establish three new Engineering Research Centers (ERCs) that will advance interdisciplinary nanosystems research and education in partnership with industry.

Over the next five years, these Nanosystems ERCs, or NERCS, will advance knowledge and create innovations that address significant societal issues, such as the human health and environmental implications of nanotechnology. At the same time, they will advance the competitiveness of U.S. industry. The centers will support research and innovation in electromagnetic systems, mobile computing and energy technologies, nanomanufacturing, and health and environmental sensing.

“The Nanosystems ERCs will build on more than a decade of investment and discoveries in fundamental nanoscale science and engineering,” said Thomas Peterson, NSF’s assistant director for engineering. “Our understanding of nanoscale phenomena, materials and devices has progressed to a point where we can make significant strides in nanoscale components, systems and manufacturing.”

Here are some specifics about the three new centers (from the news item),

The NSF Nanosystems Engineering Research Center for Advanced Self-Powered Systems of Integrated Sensors and Technology (ASSIST), led by North Carolina State University, will create self-powered wearable systems that simultaneously monitor a person’s environment and health, in search of connections between exposure to pollutants and chronic diseases.

The NSF Nanosystems Engineering Research Center for Nanomanufacturing Systems for Mobile Computing and Mobile Energy Technologies (NASCENT), led by the University of Texas at Austin, will pursue high-throughput, reliable, and versatile nanomanufacturing process systems, and will demonstrate them through the manufacture of mobile nanodevices.

The NSF Nanosystems Engineering Research Center for Translational Applications of Nanoscale Multiferroic Systems (TANMS), led by the University of California Los Angeles, will seek to reduce the size and increase the efficiency of components and systems whose functions rely on the manipulation of either magnetic or electromagnetic fields.

The NERCs will be a part of NSF’s contributions to the National Nanotechnology Initiative, which is a government-wide activity designed to ensure that investments in this area are made in a coordinated and timely manner and to accelerate the pace of revolutionary nanotechnology discoveries. A long-term view for nanotechnology research and education needs is documented in the 2010 NSF/WTEC report, “Nanotechnology Research Directions for Societal Needs in 2020″.

You can find the 614 pp. “Nanotechnology Research Directions for Societal Needs in 2020″ PDF written in 2010 here.