Tag Archives: NSF

Artificial intelligence used for wildlife protection

PAWS (Protection Assistant for Wildlife Security), an artificial intelligence (AI) program, has been tested in Uganda and Malaysia. according to an April 22, 2016 US National Science Foundation (NSF) news release (also on EurekAlert but dated April 21, 2016), Note: Links have been removed,

A century ago, more than 60,000 tigers roamed the wild. Today, the worldwide estimate has dwindled to around 3,200. Poaching is one of the main drivers of this precipitous drop. Whether killed for skins, medicine or trophy hunting, humans have pushed tigers to near-extinction. The same applies to other large animal species like elephants and rhinoceros that play unique and crucial roles in the ecosystems where they live.

Human patrols serve as the most direct form of protection of endangered animals, especially in large national parks. However, protection agencies have limited resources for patrols.

With support from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Army Research Office, researchers are using artificial intelligence (AI) and game theory to solve poaching, illegal logging and other problems worldwide, in collaboration with researchers and conservationists in the U.S., Singapore, Netherlands and Malaysia.

“In most parks, ranger patrols are poorly planned, reactive rather than pro-active, and habitual,” according to Fei Fang, a Ph.D. candidate in the computer science department at the University of Southern California (USC).

Fang is part of an NSF-funded team at USC led by Milind Tambe, professor of computer science and industrial and systems engineering and director of the Teamcore Research Group on Agents and Multiagent Systems.

Their research builds on the idea of “green security games” — the application of game theory to wildlife protection. Game theory uses mathematical and computer models of conflict and cooperation between rational decision-makers to predict the behavior of adversaries and plan optimal approaches for containment. The Coast Guard and Transportation Security Administration have used similar methods developed by Tambe and others to protect airports and waterways.

“This research is a step in demonstrating that AI can have a really significant positive impact on society and allow us to assist humanity in solving some of the major challenges we face,” Tambe said.

PAWS puts the claws in anti-poaching

The team presented papers describing how they use their methods to improve the success of human patrols around the world at the AAAI Conference on Artificial Intelligence in February [2016].

The researchers first created an AI-driven application called PAWS (Protection Assistant for Wildlife Security) in 2013 and tested the application in Uganda and Malaysia in 2014. Pilot implementations of PAWS revealed some limitations, but also led to significant improvements.

Here’s a video describing the issues and PAWS,

For those who prefer to read about details rather listen, there’s more from the news release,

PAWS uses data on past patrols and evidence of poaching. As it receives more data, the system “learns” and improves its patrol planning. Already, the system has led to more observations of poacher activities per kilometer.

Its key technical advance lies in its ability to incorporate complex terrain information, including the topography of protected areas. That results in practical patrol routes that minimize elevation changes, saving time and energy. Moreover, the system can also take into account the natural transit paths that have the most animal traffic – and thus the most poaching – creating a “street map” for patrols.

“We need to provide actual patrol routes that can be practically followed,” Fang said. “These routes need to go back to a base camp and the patrols can’t be too long. We list all possible patrol routes and then determine which is most effective.”

The application also randomizes patrols to avoid falling into predictable patterns.

“If the poachers observe that patrols go to some areas more often than others, then the poachers place their snares elsewhere,” Fang said.

Since 2015, two non-governmental organizations, Panthera and Rimbat, have used PAWS to protect forests in Malaysia. The research won the Innovative Applications of Artificial Intelligence award for deployed application, as one of the best AI applications with measurable benefits.

The team recently combined PAWS with a new tool called CAPTURE (Comprehensive Anti-Poaching Tool with Temporal and Observation Uncertainty Reasoning) that predicts attacking probability even more accurately.

In addition to helping patrols find poachers, the tools may assist them with intercepting trafficked wildlife products and other high-risk cargo, adding another layer to wildlife protection. The researchers are in conversations with wildlife authorities in Uganda to deploy the system later this year. They will present their findings at the 15th International Conference on Autonomous Agents and Multiagent Systems (AAMAS 2016) in May.

“There is an urgent need to protect the natural resources and wildlife on our beautiful planet, and we computer scientists can help in various ways,” Fang said. “Our work on PAWS addresses one facet of the problem, improving the efficiency of patrols to combat poaching.”

There is yet another potential use for PAWS, the prevention of illegal logging,

While Fang and her colleagues work to develop effective anti-poaching patrol planning systems, other members of the USC team are developing complementary methods to prevent illegal logging, a major economic and environmental problem for many developing countries.

The World Wildlife Fund estimates trade in illegally harvested timber to be worth between $30 billion and $100 billion annually. The practice also threatens ancient forests and critical habitats for wildlife.

Researchers at USC, the University of Texas at El Paso and Michigan State University recently partnered with the non-profit organization Alliance Vohoary Gasy to limit the illegal logging of rosewood and ebony trees in Madagascar, which has caused a loss of forest cover on the island nation.

Forest protection agencies also face limited budgets and must cover large areas, making sound investments in security resources critical.

The research team worked to determine the balance of security resources in which Madagascar should invest to maximize protection, and to figure out how to best deploy those resources.

Past work in game theory-based security typically involved specified teams — the security workers assigned to airport checkpoints, for example, or the air marshals deployed on flight tours. Finding optimal security solutions for those scenarios is difficult; a solution involving an open-ended team had not previously been feasible.

To solve this problem, the researchers developed a new method called SORT (Simultaneous Optimization of Resource Teams) that they have been experimentally validating using real data from Madagascar.

The research team created maps of the national parks, modeled the costs of all possible security resources using local salaries and budgets, and computed the best combination of resources given these conditions.

“We compared the value of using an optimal team determined by our algorithm versus a randomly chosen team and the algorithm did significantly better,” said Sara Mc Carthy, a Ph.D. student in computer science at USC.

The algorithm is simple and fast, and can be generalized to other national parks with different characteristics. The team is working to deploy it in Madagascar in association with the Alliance Vohoary Gasy.

“I am very proud of what my PhD students Fei Fang and Sara Mc Carthy have accomplished in this research on AI for wildlife security and forest protection,” said Tambe, the team lead. “Interdisciplinary collaboration with practitioners in the field was key in this research and allowed us to improve our research in artificial intelligence.”

Moreover, the project shows other computer science researchers the potential impact of applying their research to the world’s problems.

“This work is not only important because of the direct beneficial impact that it has on the environment, protecting wildlife and forests, but on the way that it can inspire other to dedicate their efforts into making the world a better place,” Mc Carthy said.

The curious can find out more about Panthera here and about Alliance Vohoary Gasy here (be prepared to use your French language skills). Unfortunately, I could not find more information about Rimbat.

Results in for Generation Nano: Small Science, Superheroes contest

The Generation Nano: Small Science, Superheroes contest last mentioned in my March 31, 2016 posting has ended and the placement of the winners, in a field of three finalists, announced at the 2016 USA Science and Engineering Festival according to an April 18, 2016 US National Science Foundation news release,

On behalf of the National Science Foundation (NSF), actor Wil Wheaton and legendary superhero creator Stan Lee yesterday announced the winners of the Generation Nano: Small Science, Superheroescompetition, sponsored by NSF and the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI).

The competition challenged high school students to think big — or, in this case, small — to create superheroes that harness their powers from nanotechnology.

Wheaton applauded the students’ creative storylines, noting that when he was Wesley Crusher on the TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation, such plots were only imaginary. “It is amazing what is today plausible due to the power of nanotechnonlogy,” he said.

In a video introduction before Wheaton announced top prize winners, Stan Lee said it was “great that I can virtually join you today.” He remarked on the winners’ “creativity, ingenuity and initiative.”

“From one superhero storyteller to the next, congratulations,” Lee said.

The winners

  • First Prize: Eric Liu from Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Virginia, for his “Nanoman,” who fights the malignant crab-monster “Cancer.”
  • Second Prize and the People’s Choice Award: Madeleine Chang from Bergen County Academies in New Jersey, for her superhero “Radio Blitz,” who disposes of local waste.
  • Third Prize: Vuong Mai from Martha Ellen Stilwell School of the Arts in Georgia, for her protector “Nine,” who dons a nanosuit for strength to save a kidnapping victim.

All weekend, the students displayed their superheroes and described the nanoscience behind them to thousands of attendees at the 2016 USA Science & Engineering Festival in Washington, D.C.

“All three finalists immersed themselves in the worlds of nanotechnology and art, told a great story, entertained and educated — all at the same time,” said Lisa Friedersdorf, deputy director of the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office. “Their creations will surely motivate additional students to imagine and learn more about what is possible with nanotechnology.”

Top award winners in this competition show that with imagination and nanotechnology, possibilities abound, said Mihail C. Roco, NSF senior advisor for science and engineering and a key architect of NNI.

“These school students have aimed higher than ever in their lives, pushing their abilities in novel domains where seeds for their high-tech future may germinate,” Roco said. “We need a constant regeneration of new talent to exploit this general purpose science and technology field to its outstanding potential. These students are well on their way.”

Competition details

NSF and NNI challenges students to submit written entries explaining their superhero and nanotechnology-driven gear, along with a one-page comic or 90-second video. A panel of judges from academia and multimedia platforms selected semifinalists and finalists, from which the public selected Madeline Chang as its People’s Choice winner.

Top prizes were determined by judges Elise Lemle, director of special projects at Two Bit Circus; Lizabeth Fogel, director of Education for the Walt Disney Company and Chair of the Board for the Partnership for 21st Century Learning; and James Murday, director of physical sciences at the University of Southern California’s Washington, D.C., office of research advancement.

Visit the Generation Nano competition website for competition details such as eligibility criteria, entry guidelines, timeline, prizes and videos/comics from the finalists and semifinalists. And stay tuned for information on next year’s competition.

Here’s a photo of Wil Wheaton officiating at the ceremony,

Actor, writer and blogger Wil Wheaton hosted the Gen Nano competition award ceremony.

Actor, writer and blogger Wil Wheaton hosted the Gen Nano competition award ceremony. Courtesy of the NSF.

Honestly, this could be anyone but there are videos of the ceremony featuring Wil Wheaton, each of the winner’s pieces, and Stan Lee attending the ceremony virtually (five videos in all).

Embroidering electronics into clothing

Researchers at The Ohio State University are developing embroidered antennas and circuits with 0.1 mm precision—the perfect size to integrate electronic components such as sensors and computer memory devices into clothing. Photo by Jo McCulty, courtesy of The Ohio State University.

Researchers at The Ohio State University are developing embroidered antennas and circuits with 0.1 mm precision—the perfect size to integrate electronic components such as sensors and computer memory devices into clothing. Photo by Jo McCulty, courtesy of The Ohio State University.

An April 13, 2016 news item on Nanowerk describes an advance in the field of wearable electronics,

Researchers who are working to develop wearable electronics have reached a milestone: They are able to embroider circuits into fabric with 0.1 mm precision—the perfect size to integrate electronic components such as sensors and computer memory devices into clothing.

With this advance, the Ohio State University researchers have taken the next step toward the design of functional textiles—clothes that gather, store, or transmit digital information. With further development, the technology could lead to shirts that act as antennas for your smart phone or tablet, workout clothes that monitor your fitness level, sports equipment that monitors athletes’ performance, a bandage that tells your doctor how well the tissue beneath it is healing—or even a flexible fabric cap that senses activity in the brain.

That last item is one that John Volakis, director of the ElectroScience Laboratory at Ohio State, and research scientist Asimina Kiourti are investigating. The idea is to make brain implants, which are under development to treat conditions from epilepsy to addiction, more comfortable by eliminating the need for external wiring on the patient’s body.

An April 13, 2016 Ohio State University news release by Pam Frost Gorder, which originated the news item, expands on the theme (Note: Links have been removed),

“A revolution is happening in the textile industry,” said Volakis, who is also the Roy & Lois Chope Chair Professor of Electrical Engineering at Ohio State. “We believe that functional textiles are an enabling technology for communications and sensing—and one day even medical applications like imaging and health monitoring.”

Recently, he and Kiourti refined their patented fabrication method to create prototype wearables at a fraction of the cost and in half the time as they could only two years ago. With new patents pending, they published the new results in the journal IEEE Antennas and Wireless Propagation Letters.

In Volakis’ lab, the functional textiles, also called “e-textiles,” are created in part on a typical tabletop sewing machine—the kind that fabric artisans and hobbyists might have at home. Like other modern sewing machines, it embroiders thread into fabric automatically based on a pattern loaded via a computer file. The researchers substitute the thread with fine silver metal wires that, once embroidered, feel the same as traditional thread to the touch.

“We started with a technology that is very well known—machine embroidery—and we asked, how can we functionalize embroidered shapes? How do we make them transmit signals at useful frequencies, like for cell phones or health sensors?” Volakis said. “Now, for the first time, we’ve achieved the accuracy of printed metal circuit boards, so our new goal is to take advantage of the precision to incorporate receivers and other electronic components.”

The shape of the embroidery determines the frequency of operation of the antenna or circuit, explained Kiourti.

The shape of one broadband antenna, for instance, consists of more than half a dozen interlocking geometric shapes, each a little bigger than a fingernail, that form an intricate circle a few inches across. Each piece of the circle transmits energy at a different frequency, so that they cover a broad spectrum of energies when working together—hence the “broadband” capability of the antenna for cell phone and internet access.

“Shape determines function,” she said. “And you never really know what shape you will need from one application to the next. So we wanted to have a technology that could embroider any shape for any application.”

The researchers’ initial goal, Kiourti added, was just to increase the precision of the embroidery as much as possible, which necessitated working with fine silver wire. But that created a problem, in that fine wires couldn’t provide as much surface conductivity as thick wires. So they had to find a way to work the fine thread into embroidery densities and shapes that would boost the surface conductivity and, thus, the antenna/sensor performance.

Previously, the researchers had used silver-coated polymer thread with a 0.5-mm diameter, each thread made up of 600 even finer filaments twisted together. The new threads have a 0.1-mm diameter, made with only seven filaments. Each filament is copper at the center, enameled with pure silver.

They purchase the wire by the spool at a cost of 3 cents per foot; Kiourti estimated that embroidering a single broadband antenna like the one mentioned above consumes about 10 feet of thread, for a material cost of around 30 cents per antenna. That’s 24 times less expensive than when Volakis and Kiourti created similar antennas in 2014.

In part, the cost savings comes from using less thread per embroidery. The researchers previously had to stack the thicker thread in two layers, one on top of the other, to make the antenna carry a strong enough electrical signal. But by refining the technique that she and Volakis developed, Kiourti was able to create the new, high-precision antennas in only one embroidered layer of the finer thread. So now the process takes half the time: only about 15 minutes for the broadband antenna mentioned above.

She’s also incorporated some techniques common to microelectronics manufacturing to add parts to embroidered antennas and circuits.

One prototype antenna looks like a spiral and can be embroidered into clothing to improve cell phone signal reception. Another prototype, a stretchable antenna with an integrated RFID (radio-frequency identification) chip embedded in rubber, takes the applications for the technology beyond clothing. (The latter object was part of a study done for a tire manufacturer.)

Yet another circuit resembles the Ohio State Block “O” logo, with non-conductive scarlet and gray thread embroidered among the silver wires “to demonstrate that e-textiles can be both decorative and functional,” Kiourti said.

They may be decorative, but the embroidered antennas and circuits actually work. Tests showed that an embroidered spiral antenna measuring approximately six inches across transmitted signals at frequencies of 1 to 5 GHz with near-perfect efficiency. The performance suggests that the spiral would be well-suited to broadband internet and cellular communication.

In other words, the shirt on your back could help boost the reception of the smart phone or tablet that you’re holding – or send signals to your devices with health or athletic performance data.

The work fits well with Ohio State’s role as a founding partner of the Advanced Functional Fabrics of America Institute, a national manufacturing resource center for industry and government. The new institute, which joins some 50 universities and industrial partners, was announced earlier this month by U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter.

Syscom Advanced Materials in Columbus provided the threads used in Volakis and Kiourti’s initial work. The finer threads used in this study were purchased from Swiss manufacturer Elektrisola. The research is funded by the National Science Foundation, and Ohio State will license the technology for further development.

Until then, Volakis is making out a shopping list for the next phase of the project.

“We want a bigger sewing machine,” he said.

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

Fabrication of Textile Antennas and Circuits With 0.1 mm Precision by A. Kiourti, C. Lee, and J. L. Volakis.  IEEE Antennas and Wireless Propagation Letters (Volume:15 ) Page(s): 151 – 153 ISSN : 1536-1225 INSPEC Accession Number: 15785288 DOI: 10.1109/LAWP.2015.2435257 Date of Publication: 20 May 2015 Issue Date: 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.

$1.4B for US National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) in 2017 budget

According to an April 1, 2016 news item on Nanowerk, the US National Nanotechnology (NNI) has released its 2017 budget supplement,

The President’s Budget for Fiscal Year 2017 provides $1.4 billion for the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), affirming the important role that nanotechnology continues to play in the Administration’s innovation agenda. NNI
Cumulatively totaling nearly $24 billion since the inception of the NNI in 2001, the President’s 2017 Budget supports nanoscale science, engineering, and technology R&D at 11 agencies.

Another 9 agencies have nanotechnology-related mission interests or regulatory responsibilities.

An April 1, 2016 NNI news release, which originated the news item, affirms the Obama administration’s commitment to the NNI and notes the supplement serves as an annual report amongst other functions,

Throughout its two terms, the Obama Administration has maintained strong fiscal support for the NNI and has implemented new programs and activities to engage the broader nanotechnology community to support the NNI’s vision that the ability to understand and control matter at the nanoscale will lead to new innovations that will improve our quality of life and benefit society.

This Budget Supplement documents progress of these participating agencies in addressing the goals and objectives of the NNI. It also serves as the Annual Report for the NNI called for under the provisions of the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act of 2003 (Public Law 108-153, 15 USC §7501). The report also addresses the requirement for Department of Defense reporting on its nanotechnology investments, per 10 USC §2358.

For additional details and to view the full document, visit www.nano.gov/2017BudgetSupplement.

I don’t seem to have posted about the 2016 NNI budget allotment but 2017’s $1.4B represents a drop of $100M since 2015’s $1.5 allotment.

The 2017 NNI budget supplement describes the NNI’s main focus,

Over the past year, the NNI participating agencies, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), and the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office (NNCO) have been charting the future directions of the NNI, including putting greater focus on promoting commercialization and increasing education and outreach efforts to the broader nanotechnology community. As part of this effort, and in keeping with recommendations from the 2014 review of the NNI by the President’s Council of Advisors for Science and Technology, the NNI has been working to establish Nanotechnology-Inspired Grand Challenges, ambitious but achievable goals that will harness nanotechnology to solve National or global problems and that have the potential to capture the public’s imagination. Based upon inputs from NNI agencies and the broader community, the first Nanotechnology-Inspired Grand Challenge (for future computing) was announced by OSTP on October 20, 2015, calling for a collaborative effort to “create a new type of computer that can proactively interpret and learn from data, solve unfamiliar problems using what it has learned, and operate with the energy efficiency of the human brain.” This Grand Challenge has generated broad interest within the nanotechnology community—not only NNI agencies, but also industry, technical societies, and private foundations—and planning is underway to address how the agencies and the community will work together to achieve this goal. Topics for additional Nanotechnology-Inspired Grand Challenges are under review.

Interestingly, it also offers an explanation of the images on its cover (Note: Links have been removed),

US_NNI_2017_budget_cover

About the cover

Each year’s National Nanotechnology Initiative Supplement to the President’s Budget features cover images illustrating recent developments in nanotechnology stemming from NNI activities that have the potential to make major contributions to National priorities. The text below explains the significance of each of the featured images on this year’s cover.

US_NNI_2017_front_cover_CloseUp

Front cover featured images (above): Images illustrating three novel nanomedicine applications. Center: microneedle array for glucose-responsive insulin delivery imaged using fluorescence microscopy. This “smart insulin patch” is based on painless microneedles loaded with hypoxia-sensitive vesicles ~100 nm in diameter that release insulin in response to high glucose levels. Dr. Zhen Gu and colleagues at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University have demonstrated that this patch effectively regulates the blood glucose of type 1 diabetic mice with faster response than current pH-sensitive formulations. The inset image on the lower right shows the structure of the nanovesicles; each microneedle contains more than 100 million of these vesicles. The research was supported by the American Diabetes Association, the State of North Carolina, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the National Science Foundation (NSF). Left: colorized rendering of a candidate universal flu vaccine nanoparticle. The vaccine molecule, developed at the NIH Vaccine Research Center, displays only the conserved part of the viral spike and stimulates the production of antibodies to fight against the ever-changing flu virus. The vaccine is engineered from a ~13 nm ferritin core (blue) combined with a 7 nm influenza antigen (green). Image credit: NIH National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). Right: colorized scanning electron micrograph of Ebola virus particles on an infected VERO E6 cell. Blue represents individual Ebola virus particles. The image was produced by John Bernbaum and Jiro Wada at NIAID. When the Ebola outbreak struck in 2014, the Food and Drug Administration authorized emergency use of lateral flow immunoassays for Ebola detection that use gold nanoparticles for visual interpretation of the tests.

US_NNI_2017_back_cover._CloseUp

Back cover featured images (above): Images illustrating examples of NNI educational outreach activities. Center: Comic from the NSF/NNI competition Generation Nano: Small Science Superheroes. Illustration by Amina Khan, NSF. Left of Center: Polymer Nanocone Array (biomimetic of antimicrobial insect surface) by Kyle Nowlin, UNC-Greensboro, winner from the first cycle of the NNI’s student image contest, EnvisioNano. Right of Center: Gelatin Nanoparticles in Brain (nasal delivery of stroke medication to the brain) by Elizabeth Sawicki, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, winner from the second cycle of EnvisioNano. Outside right: still photo from the video Chlorination-less (water treatment method using reusable nanodiamond powder) by Abelardo Colon and Jennifer Gill, University of Puerto Rico at Rio Piedras, the winning video from the NNI’s Student Video Contest. Outside left: Society of Emerging NanoTechnologies (SENT) student group at the University of Central Florida, one of the initial nodes in the developing U.S. Nano and Emerging Technologies Student Network; photo by Alexis Vilaboy.

Vote for* winner for Generation Nano: Small Science, Superheroes

The US National Science Foundation’s (NSF) contest “Generation Nano: Small Science, Superheroes” for high school students has whittled down the entries to three finalists and bringing them to Washington, DC where the winner will announced at the 2016 USA Science & Engineering Festival (April 16 – 17, 2016) according to a March 30, 2016 NSF news release,

The National Science Foundation (NSF) today announced the names of three finalists in its Generation Nano: Small Science, Superheroes competition, sponsored by NSF and its National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) and supported by many, including superhero legend Stan Lee.

High school students Madeleine Chang from Bergen County Academies in New Jersey, Vuong Mai from Martha Ellen Stilwell School of the Arts in Georgia and Eric Liu from Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Virginia will come to Washington, D.C., to display their comics and compete for prizes at the 2016 USA Science & Engineering Festival in mid-April.

The competition drew submissions from all over the country. All responded to the call to think big — or in this case small — and use nanotechnology to empower their own original superheroes. Chang’s hero “Radio Blitz” disposes of local waste. Mai’s protector “Nine” dons a Nanosuit for strength to save a kidnapping victim. And Liu’s “Nanoman” fights the malignant crab-monster, “Cancer.”

“These three finalists tell a great story — all while they exemplify the combination of a sound technical basis for use of nanotechnology and artistic presentation,” said Lisa Friedersdorf, deputy director of the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office. “I think these comics will inspire other students to learn more about what is possible with nanotechnology.”

When it comes to applications for nanotechnology, “The possibilities abound,” said Mihail C. Roco, NSF senior advisor for science and engineering and key architect of NNI.

“Since these high school students were born, more discoveries have come from nanotechnology than any other field of science, with its discoveries penetrating all aspects of society — new industries, medicine, agriculture and the management of natural resources,” Roco said. “It is so exciting that these kids are getting in on the ground floor of progress. The competition inspires young people to dream high and create solutions in a way that may change their lives and those around them. We need this new talent; the future of emerging technologies, including nanotechnology depends on it.”

Those of us who cannot attend the festival, can vote online,

And remember to vote for your favorite from April 7 to 15.

*ETA March 31, 2016 at 1115 hours PDT: The vote link from the news release does not seem to be operational presumably since we the voting period doesn’t start until April 7, 2016.

Congratulations to the three finalists!

*’or’ switched to ‘for’  in the headline at 1110 hours PDT on March 31, 2016.

Sensing fuel leaks and fuel-based explosives with a nanofibril composite

A March 28, 2016 news item on Nanowerk highlights some research from the University of Utah (US),

Alkane fuel is a key ingredient in combustible material such as gasoline, airplane fuel, oil — even a homemade bomb. Yet it’s difficult to detect and there are no portable scanners available that can sniff out the odorless and colorless vapor.

But University of Utah engineers have developed a new type of fiber material for a handheld scanner that can detect small traces of alkane fuel vapor, a valuable advancement that could be an early-warning signal for leaks in an oil pipeline, an airliner, or for locating a terrorist’s explosive.

A March 25, 2016 University of Utah news release, which originated the news item, provides a little more detail,

Currently, there are no small, portable chemical sensors to detect alkane fuel vapor because it is not chemically reactive. The conventional way to detect it is with a large oven-sized instrument in a lab.

“It’s not mobile and very heavy,” Zang [Ling Zang, University of Utah materials science and engineering professor] says of the larger instrument. “There’s no way it can be used in the field. Imagine trying to detect the leak from a gas valve or on the pipelines. You ought to have something portable.”

So Zang’s team developed a type of fiber composite that involves two nanofibers transferring electrons from one to the other.

That kind of interaction would then signal the detector that the alkane vapor is present. Vaporsens, a University of Utah spinoff company, has designed a prototype of the handheld detector with an array of 16 sensor materials that will be able to identify a broad range of chemicals including explosives.  This new composite material will be incorporated into the sensor array to include the detection of alkanes. Vaporsens plans to introduce the device on the market in about a year and a half, says Zang, who is the company’s chief science officer.

Such a small sensor device that can detect alkane vapor will benefit three main categories:

  • Oil pipelines. If leaks from pipelines are not detected early enough, the resulting leaked oil could contaminate the local environment and water sources. Typically, only large leaks in pipelines can be detected if there is a drop in pressure. Zang’s portable sensor — when placed along the pipeline — could detect much smaller leaks before they become bigger.
  • Airplane fuel tanks. Fuel for aircraft is stored in removable “bladders” made of flexible fabric. The only way a leak can be detected is by seeing the dyed fuel seeping from the plane and then removing the bladder to inspect it. Zang’s sensors could be placed around the bladder to warn a pilot if a leak is occurring in real time and where it is located.
  • Security. The scanner will be designed to locate the presence of explosives such as bombs at airports or in other buildings. Many explosives, such as the bomb used in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, use fuel oils like diesel as one of its major components. These fuel oils are forms of alkane.

The research was funded by the Department of Homeland Security, National Science Foundation and NASA. The lead author of the paper is University of Utah materials science and engineering doctoral student Chen Wang, and [Benjamin] Bunes is the co-author.

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

Interfacial Donor–Acceptor Nanofibril Composites for Selective Alkane Vapor Detection by Chen Wang, Benjamin R. Bunes, Miao Xu, Na Wu, Xiaomei Yang, Dustin E. Gross, and Ling Zang. ACS Sens DOI: 10.1021/acssensors.6b00018 Publication Date (Web): March 09, 2016

Copyright © 2016 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

US Nanotechnology Initiative for water sustainability

Wednesday, March 23, 2016 was World Water Day and to coincide with that event the US National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) in collaboration with several other agencies announced a new ‘signature initiative’. From a March 24, 2016 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

As a part of the White House Water Summit held yesterday on World Water Day, the Federal agencies participating in the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) announced the launch of a Nanotechnology Signature Initiative (NSI), Water Sustainability through Nanotechnology: Nanoscale Solutions for a Global-Scale Challenge.

A March 23, 2016 NNI news release provides more information about why this initiative is important,

Access to clean water remains one of the world’s most pressing needs. As today’s White House Office of Science and Technology blog post explains, “the small size and exceptional properties of engineered nanomaterials are particularly promising for addressing the key technical challenges related to water quality and quantity.”

“One cannot find an issue more critical to human life and global security than clean, plentiful, and reliable water sources,” said Dr. Michael Meador, Director of the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office (NNCO). “Through the NSI mechanism, NNI member agencies will have an even greater ability to make meaningful strides toward this initiative’s thrust areas: increasing water availability, improving the efficiency of water delivery and use, and enabling next-generation water monitoring systems.”

A March 23, 2016 US White House blog posting by Lloyd Whitman and Lisa Friedersdorf describes the efforts in more detail (Note: A link has been removed),

The small size and exceptional properties of engineered nanomaterials are particularly promising for addressing the pressing technical challenges related to water quality and quantity. For example, the increased surface area—a cubic centimeter of nanoparticles has a surface area larger than a football field—and reactivity of nanometer-scale particles can be exploited to create catalysts for water purification that do not require rare or precious metals. And composites incorporating nanomaterials such as carbon nanotubes might one day enable stronger, lighter, and more durable piping systems and components. Under this NSI, Federal agencies will coordinate and collaborate to more rapidly develop nanotechnology-enabled solutions in three main thrusts: [thrust 1] increasing water availability; [thrust 2] improving the efficiency of water delivery and use; and [thrust 3] enabling next-generation water monitoring systems.

A technical “white paper” released by the agencies this week highlights key technical challenges for each thrust, identifies key objectives to overcome those challenges, and notes areas of research and development where nanotechnology promises to provide the needed solutions. By shining a spotlight on these areas, the new NSI will increase Federal coordination and collaboration, including with public and private stakeholders, which is vital to making progress in these areas. The additional focus and associated collective efforts will advance stewardship of water resources to support the essential food, energy, security, and environment needs of all stakeholders.

We applaud the commitment of the Federal agencies who will participate in this effort—the Department of Commerce/National Institute of Standards and Technology, Department of Energy, Environmental Protection Agency, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, National Science Foundation, and U.S. Department of Agriculture/National Institute of Food and Agriculture. As made clear at this week’s White House Water Summit, the world’s water systems are under tremendous stress, and new and emerging technologies will play a critical role in ensuring a sustainable water future.

The white paper (12 pp.) is titled: Water Sustainability through Nanotechnology: Nanoscale Solutions for a Global-Scale Challenge and describes the thrusts in more detail.

A March 22, 2016 US White House fact sheet lays out more details including funding,

Click here to learn more about all of the commitments and announcements being made today. They include:

  • Nearly $4 billion in private capital committed to investment in a broad range of water-infrastructure projects nationwide. This includes $1.5 billion from Ultra Capital to finance decentralized and scalable water-management solutions, and $500 million from Sustainable Water to develop water reclamation and reuse systems.
  • More than $1 billion from the private sector over the next decade to conduct research and development into new technologies. This includes $500 million from GE to fuel innovation, expertise, and global capabilities in advanced water, wastewater, and reuse technologies.
  • A Presidential Memorandum and supporting Action Plan on building national capabilities for long-term drought resilience in the United States, including by setting drought resilience policy goals, directing specific drought resilience activities to be completed by the end of the year, and permanently establishing the National Drought Resilience Partnership as an interagency task force responsible for coordinating drought-resilience, response, and recovery efforts.
  • Nearly $35 million this year in Federal grants from the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Science Foundation, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to support cutting-edge water science;
  • The release of a new National Water Model that will dramatically enhance the Nation’s river-forecasting capabilities by delivering forecasts for approximately 2.7 million locations, up from 4,000 locations today (a 700-fold increase in forecast density).

This seems promising and hopefully other countries will follow suit.

A study in contrasts: innovation and education strategies in US and British Columbia (Canada)

It’s always interesting to contrast two approaches to the same issue, in this case, innovation and education strategies designed to improve the economies of the United States and of British Columbia, a province in Canada.

One of the major differences regarding education in the US and in Canada is that the Canadian federal government, unlike the US federal government, has no jurisdiction over the matter. Education is strictly a provincial responsibility.

I recently wrote a commentary (a Jan. 19, 2016 posting) about the BC government’s Jan. 18, 2016 announcement of its innovation strategy in a special emphasis on the education aspect. Premier Christy Clark focused largely on the notion of embedding courses on computer coding in schools from K-12 (kindergarten through grade 12) as Jonathon Narvey noted in his Jan. 19, 2016 event recap for Betakit,

While many in the tech sector will be focused on the short-term benefits of a quick injection of large capital [a $100M BC Tech Fund as part of a new strategy was announced in Dec. 2015 but details about the new #BCTECH Strategy were not shared until Jan. 18, 2016], the long-term benefits for the local tech sector are being seeded in local schools. More than 600,000 BC students will be getting basic skills in the K-12 curriculum, with coding academies, more work experience electives and partnerships between high school and post-secondary institutions.

Here’s what I had to say in my commentary (from the Jan. 19, 2016 posting),

… the government wants to embed  computer coding into the education system for K-12 (kindergarten to grade 12). One determined reporter (Canadian Press if memory serves) attempted to find out how much this would cost. No answer was forthcoming although there were many words expended. Whether this failure was due to ignorance (disturbing!) or a reluctance to share (also disturbing!) was impossible to tell. Another reporter (Georgia Straight) asked about equipment (coding can be taught with pen and paper but hardware is better). … Getting back to the reporter’s question, no answer was forthcoming although the speaker was loquacious.

Another reporter asked if the government had found any jurisdictions doing anything similar regarding computer coding. It seems they did consider other jurisdictions although it was claimed that BC is the first to strike out in this direction. Oddly, no one mentioned Estonia, known in some circles as E-stonia, where the entire school system was online by the late 1990s in an initiative known as the ‘Tiger Leap Foundation’ which also supported computer coding classes in secondary school (there’s more in Tim Mansel’s May 16, 2013 article about Estonia’s then latest initiative to embed computer coding into grade school.) …

Aside from the BC government’s failure to provide details, I am uncomfortable with what I see as an overemphasis on computer coding that suggests a narrow focus on what constitutes a science and technology strategy for education. I find the US approach closer to what I favour although I may be biased since they are building their strategy around nanotechnology education.

The US approach had been announced in dribs and drabs until recently when a Jan. 26, 2016 news item on Nanotechnology Now indicated a broad-based plan for nanotechnology education (and computer coding),

Over the past 15 years, the Federal Government has invested over $22 billion in R&D under the auspices of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) to understand and control matter at the nanoscale and develop applications that benefit society. As these nanotechnology-enabled applications become a part of everyday life, it is important for students to have a basic understanding of material behavior at the nanoscale, and some states have even incorporated nanotechnology concepts into their K-12 science standards. Furthermore, application of the novel properties that exist at the nanoscale, from gecko-inspired climbing gloves and invisibility cloaks, to water-repellent coatings on clothes or cellphones, can spark students’ excitement about science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

An earlier Jan. 25, 2016 White House blog posting by Lisa Friedersdorf and Lloyd Whitman introduced the notion that nanotechnology is viewed as foundational and a springboard for encouraging interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) careers while outlining several formal and information education efforts,

The Administration’s updated Strategy for American Innovation, released in October 2015, identifies nanotechnology as one of the emerging “general-purpose technologies”—a technology that, like the steam engine, electricity, and the Internet, will have a pervasive impact on our economy and our society, with the ability to create entirely new industries, create jobs, and increase productivity. To reap these benefits, we must train our Nation’s students for these high-tech jobs of the future. Fortunately, the multidisciplinary nature of nanotechnology and the unique and fascinating phenomena that occur at the nanoscale mean that nanotechnology is a perfect topic to inspire students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

The Nanotechnology: Super Small Science series [mentioned in my Jan. 21, 2016 posting] is just the latest example of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI)’s efforts to educate and inspire our Nation’s students. Other examples include:

The announcement about computer coding and courses being integrated in the US education curricula K-12 was made in US President Barack Obama’s 2016 State of the Union speech and covered in a Jan. 30, 2016 article by Jessica Hullinger for Fast Company,

In his final State Of The Union address earlier this month, President Obama called for providing hands-on computer science classes for all students to make them “job ready on day one.” Today, he is unveiling how he plans to do that with his upcoming budget.

The President’s Computer Science for All Initiative seeks to provide $4 billion in funding for states and an additional $100 million directly to school districts in a push to provide access to computer science training in K-12 public schools. The money would go toward things like training teachers, providing instructional materials, and getting kids involved in computer science early in elementary and middle school.

There are more details in the Hullinger’s article and in a Jan. 30, 2016 White House blog posting by Megan Smith,

Computer Science for All is the President’s bold new initiative to empower all American students from kindergarten through high school to learn computer science and be equipped with the computational thinking skills they need to be creators in the digital economy, not just consumers, and to be active citizens in our technology-driven world. Our economy is rapidly shifting, and both educators and business leaders are increasingly recognizing that computer science (CS) is a “new basic” skill necessary for economic opportunity and social mobility.

CS for All builds on efforts already being led by parents, teachers, school districts, states, and private sector leaders from across the country.

Nothing says one approach has to be better than the other as there’s usually more than one way to accomplish a set of goals. As well, it’s unfair to expect a provincial government to emulate the federal government of a larger country with more money to spend. I just wish the BC government (a) had shared details such as the budget allotment for their initiative and (b) would hint at a more imaginative, long range view of STEM education.

Going back to Estonia one last time, in addition to the country’s recent introduction of computer coding classes in grade school, it has also embarked on a nanotechnology/nanoscience educational and entrepreneurial programme as noted in my Sept. 30, 2014 posting,

The University of Tartu (Estonia) announced in a Sept. 29, 2014 press release an educational and entrepreneurial programme about nanotechnology/nanoscience for teachers and students,

To bring nanoscience closer to pupils, educational researchers of the University of Tartu decided to implement the European Union LLP Comenius project “Quantum Spin-Off – connecting schools with high-tech research and entrepreneurship”. The objective of the project is to build a kind of a bridge: at one end, pupils can familiarise themselves with modern science, and at the other, experience its application opportunities at high-tech enterprises. “We also wish to inspire these young people to choose a specialisation related to science and technology in the future,” added Lukk [Maarika Lukk, Coordinator of the project].

The pupils can choose between seven topics of nanotechnology: the creation of artificial muscles, microbiological fuel elements, manipulation of nanoparticles, nanoparticles and ionic liquids as oil additives, materials used in regenerative medicine, deposition and 3D-characterisation of atomically designed structures and a topic covered in English, “Artificial robotic fish with EAP elements”.

Learning is based on study modules in the field of nanotechnology. In addition, each team of pupils will read a scientific publication, selected for them by an expert of that particular field. In that way, pupils will develop an understanding of the field and of scientific texts. On the basis of the scientific publication, the pupils prepare their own research project and a business plan suitable for applying the results of the project.

In each field, experts of the University of Tartu will help to understand the topics. Participants will visit a nanotechnology research laboratory and enterprises using nanotechnologies.

The project lasts for two years and it is also implemented in Belgium, Switzerland and Greece.

As they say, time will tell.

NISE Net, the acronym remains the same but the name changes

NISE Net, the US Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network is winding down the nano and refocussing on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). In short, NISE Net will now stand for National Informal STEM Education Network. Here’s more from the Jan. 7, 2016 NISE Net announcement in the January 2016 issue of the Nano Bite,

COMMUNITY NEWS

NISE Network is Transitioning to the National Informal STEM Education Network

Thank you for all the great work you have done over the past decade. It has opened up totally new possibilities for the decade ahead.

We are excited to let you know that with the completion of NSF funding for the Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network, and the soon-to-be-announced NASA [US National Aeronautics and Space Administration]-funded Space and Earth Informal STEM Education project, the NISE Network is transitioning to a new, ongoing identity as the National Informal STEM Education Network! While we’ll still be known as the NISE Net, network partners will now engage audiences across the United States in a range of STEM topics. Several new projects are already underway and others are in discussion for the future.

Current NISE Net projects include:

  • The original Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network (NISE Net), focusing on nanoscale science, engineering, and technology (funded by NSF and led by the Museum of Science, Boston)
  • Building with Biology, focusing on synthetic biology (funded by NSF and led by the Museum of Science with AAAS [American Association for the Advancement of Science], BioBuilder, and SynBerc [emphases mine])
  • Sustainability in Science Museums (funded by Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiatives and led by Arizona State University)
  • Transmedia Museum, focusing on science and society issues raised by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (funded by NSF and led by Arizona State University)
  • Space and Earth Informal STEM Education (funded by NASA and led by the Science Museum of Minnesota)

The “new” NISE Net will be led by the Science Museum of Minnesota in collaboration with the Museum of Science and Arizona State University. Network leadership, infrastructure, and participating organizations will include existing Network partners, and others attracted to the new topics. We will be in touch through the newsletter, blog, and website in the coming months to share more about our plans for the Network and its projects.

In the mean time, work is continuing with partners within the Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network throughout 2016, with an award end date of February 28, 2017. Although there will not be a new NanoDays 2016 kit, we encourage our partners to continue to engage audiences in nano by hosting NanoDays events in 2016 (March 26 – April 3) and in the years ahead using their existing kit materials. The Network will continue to host and update nisenet.org and the online catalog that includes 627 products of which 366 are NISE Net products (public and professional), 261 are Linked products, and 55 are Evaluation and Research reports. The Evaluation and Research team is continuing to work on final Network reports, and the Museum and Community Partnerships project has awarded 100 Explore Science physical kits to partners to create new or expanded collaborations with local community organizations to reach new underserved audiences not currently engaged in nano. These collaborative projects are taking place spring-summer 2016.

Thank you again for making this possible through your great work.

Best regards,

Larry Bell, Museum of Science
Paul Martin, Science Museum of Minnesota and
Rae Ostman, Arizona State University

As noted in previous posts, I’m quite interested in the synthetic biology focus the network has established in the last several months starting in late Spring 2015 and the mention of two (new-to-me) organizations, BioBuilder and Synberc piqued my interest.

I found this on the About the foundation page of the BioBuilder website,

What’s the best way to solve today’s health problems? Or hunger challenges? Address climate change concerns? Or keep the environment cleaner? These are big questions. And everyone can be part of the solutions. Everyone. Middle school students, teens, high school teachers.

At BioBuilder, we teach problem solving.
We bring current science to the classroom.
We engage our students to become real scientists — the problem solvers who will change the world.
At BioBuilder, we empower educators to be agents of educational reform by reconnecting teachers all across the country with their love of teaching and their own love of learning.

Synthetic biology programs living cells to tackle today’s challenges. Biofuels, safer foods, anti-malarial drugs, less toxic cancer treatment, biodegradable adhesives — all fuel young students’ imaginations. At BioBuilder, we empower students to tackle these big questions. BioBuilder’s curricula and teacher training capitalize on students’ need to know, to explore and to be part of solving real world problems. Developed by an award winning team out of MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology], BioBuilder is taught in schools across the country and supported by thought leaders in the STEM community.

BioBuilder proves that learning by doing works. And inspires.

As for Synberc, it is the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center and they has this to say about themselves on their About us page (Note: Links have been removed),

Synberc is a multi-university research center established in 2006 with a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to help lay the foundation for synthetic biology Our mission is threefold:

develop the foundational understanding and technologies to build biological components and assemble them into integrated systems to accomplish many particular tasks;
train a new cadre of engineers who will specialize in engineering biology; and
engage the public about the opportunities and challenges of engineering biology.

Just as electrical engineers have made it possible for us to assemble computers from standardized parts (hard drives, memory cards, motherboards, and so on), we envision a day when biological engineers will be able to systematically assemble biological components such as sensors, signals, pathways, and logic gates in order to build bio-based systems that solve real-world problems in health, energy, and the environment.

In our work, we apply engineering principles to biology to develop tools that improve how fast — and how well — we can go through the design-test-build cycle. These include smart fermentation organisms that can sense their environment and adjust accordingly, and multiplex automated genome engineering, or MAGE, designed for large-scale programming and evolution of cells. We also pursue the discovery of applications that can lead to significant public benefit, such as synthetic artemisinin [emphasis mine], an anti-malaria drug that costs less and is more effective than the current plant-derived treatment.

The reference to ‘synthetic artemisinin’ caught my eye as I wrote an April 12, 2013 posting featuring this “… anti-malaria drug …” and the claim that the synthetic “… costs less and is more effective than the current plant-derived treatment” wasn’t quite the conclusion journalist, Brendan Borrell arrived at. Perhaps there’s been new research? If so, please let me know.