Tag Archives: Ontario

Ora Sound, a Montréal-based startup, and its ‘graphene’ headphones

For all the excitement about graphene there aren’t that many products as Glenn Zorpette notes in a June 20, 2017 posting about Ora Sound and its headphones on the Nanoclast blog (on the IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] website; Note: Links have been removed),

Graphene has long been touted as a miracle material that would deliver everything from tiny, ultralow-power transistors to the vastly long and ultrastrong cable [PDF] needed for a space elevator. And yet, 13 years of graphene development, and R&D expenditures well in the tens of billions of dollars have so far yielded just a handful of niche products. The most notable by far is a line of tennis racquets in which relatively small amounts of graphene are used to stiffen parts of the frame.

Ora Sound, a Montreal-based [Québec, Canada] startup, hopes to change all that. On 20 June [2017], it unveiled a Kickstarter campaign for a new audiophile-grade headphone that uses cones, also known as membranes, made of a form of graphene. “To the best of our knowledge, we are the first company to find a significant, commercially viable application for graphene,” says Ora cofounder Ari Pinkas, noting that the cones in the headphones are 95 percent graphene.

Kickstarter

It should be noted that participating in a Kickstarter campaign is an investment/gamble. I am not endorsing Ora Sound or its products. That said, this does look interesting (from the ORA: The World’s First Graphene Headphones Kickstarter campaign webpage),

ORA GQ Headphones uses nanotechnology to deliver the most groundbreaking audio listening experience. Scientists have long promised that one day Graphene will find its way into many facets of our lives including displays, electronic circuits and sensors. ORA’s Graphene technology makes it one of the first companies to have created a commercially viable application for this Nobel-prize winning material, a major scientific achievement.

The GQ Headphones come equipped with ORA’s patented GrapheneQ™ membranes, providing unparalleled fidelity. The headphones also offer all the features you would expect from a high-end audio product: wired/wireless operation, a gesture control track-pad, a digital MEMS microphone, breathable lambskin leather and an ear-shaped design optimized for sound quality and isolated comfort.

They have produced a slick video to promote their campaign,

At the time of publishing this post, the campaign will run for another eight days and has raised $650,949 CAD. This is more than $500,000 dollars over the company’s original goal of $135,000. I’m sure they’re ecstatic but this success can be a mixed blessing. They have many more people expecting a set of headphones than they anticipated and that can mean production issues.

Further, there appears to be only one member of the team with business experience and his (Ari Pinkas) experience includes marketing strategy for a few years and then founding an online marketplace for teachers. I would imagine Pinkas will be experiencing a very steep learning curve. Hopefully, Helge Seetzen, a member of the company’s advisory board will be able to offer assistance. According to Seetzen’s Wikipedia entry, he is a “… German technologist and businessman known for imaging & multimedia research and commercialization,” as well as, having a Canadian educational background and business experience. The rest of the team and advisory board appear to be academics.

The technology

A March 14, 2017 article by Andy Riga for the Montréal Gazette gives a general description of the technology,

A Montreal startup is counting on technology sparked by a casual conversation between two brothers pursuing PhDs at McGill University.

They were chatting about their disparate research areas — one, in engineering, was working on using graphene, a form of carbon, in batteries; the other, in music, was looking at the impact of electronics on the perception of audio quality.

At first glance, the invention that ensued sounds humdrum.

It’s a replacement for an item you use every day. It’s paper thin, you probably don’t realize it’s there and its design has not changed much in more than a century. Called a membrane or diaphragm, it’s the part of a loudspeaker that vibrates to create the sound from the headphones over your ears, the wireless speaker on your desk, the cellphone in your hand.

Membranes are normally made of paper, Mylar or aluminum.

Ora’s innovation uses graphene, a remarkable material whose discovery garnered two scientists the 2010 Nobel Prize in physics but which has yet to fulfill its promise.

“Because it’s so stiff, our membrane gets better sound quality,” said Robert-Eric Gaskell, who obtained his PhD in sound recording in 2015. “It can produce more sound with less distortion, and the sound that you hear is more true to the original sound intended by the artist.

“And because it’s so light, we get better efficiency — the lighter it is, the less energy it takes.”

In January, the company demonstrated its membrane in headphones at the Consumer Electronics Show, a big trade convention in Las Vegas.

Six cellphone manufacturers expressed interest in Ora’s technology, some of which are now trying prototypes, said Ari Pinkas, in charge of product marketing at Ora. “We’re talking about big cellphone manufacturers — big, recognizable names,” he said.

Technology companies are intrigued by the idea of using Ora’s technology to make smaller speakers so they can squeeze other things, such as bigger batteries, into the limited space in electronic devices, Pinkas said. Others might want to use Ora’s membrane to allow their devices to play music louder, he added.

Makers of regular speakers, hearing aids and virtual-reality headsets have also expressed interest, Pinkas said.

Ora is still working on headphones.

Riga’s article offers a good overview for people who are not familiar with graphene.

Zorpette’s June 20, 2017 posting (on Nanoclast) offers a few more technical details (Note: Links have been removed),

During an interview and demonstration in the IEEE Spectrum offices, Pinkas and Robert-Eric Gaskell, another of the company’s cofounders, explained graphene’s allure to audiophiles. “Graphene has the ideal properties for a membrane,” Gaskell says. “It’s incredibly stiff, very lightweight—a rare combination—and it’s well damped,” which means it tends to quell spurious vibrations. By those metrics, graphene soundly beats all the usual choices: mylar, paper, aluminum, or even beryllium, Gaskell adds.

The problem is making it in sheets large enough to fashion into cones. So-called “pristine” graphene exists as flakes, [emphasis mine] perhaps 10 micrometers across, and a single atom thick. To make larger, strong sheets of graphene, researchers attach oxygen atoms to the flakes, and then other elements to the oxygen atoms to cross-link the flakes and hold them together strongly in what materials scientists call a laminate structure. The intellectual property behind Ora’s advance came from figuring out how to make these structures suitably thick and in the proper shape to function as speaker cones, Gaskell says. In short, he explains, the breakthrough was, “being able to manufacture” in large numbers, “and in any geometery we want.”

Much of the R&D work that led to Ora’s process was done at nearby McGill University, by professor Thomas Szkopek of the Electrical and Computer Engineering department. Szkopek worked with Peter Gaskell, Robert-Eric’s younger brother. Ora is also making use of patents that arose from work done on graphene by the Nguyen Group at Northwestern University, in Evanston, Ill.

Robert-Eric Gaskell and Pinkas arrived at Spectrum with a preproduction model of their headphones, as well as some other headphones for the sake of comparison. The Ora prototype is clearly superior to the comparison models, but that’s not much of a surprise. …

… In the 20 minutes or so I had to audition Ora’s preproduction model, I listened to an assortment of classical and jazz standards and I came away impressed. The sound is precise, with fine details sharply rendered. To my surprise, I was reminded of planar-magnetic type headphones that are now surging in popularity in the upper reaches of the audiophile headphone market. Bass is smooth and tight. Overall, the unit holds up quite well against closed-back models in the $400 to $500 range I’ve listened to from Grado, Bowers & Wilkins, and Audeze.

Ora’s Kickstarter campaign page (Graphene vs GrapheneQ subsection) offers some information about their unique graphene composite,

A TECHNICAL INTRODUCTION TO GRAPHENE

Graphene is a new material, first isolated only 13 years ago. Formed from a single layer of carbon atoms, Graphene is a hexagonal crystal lattice in a perfect honeycomb structure. This fundamental geometry makes Graphene ridiculously strong and lightweight. In its pure form, Graphene is a single atomic layer of carbon. It can be very expensive and difficult to produce in sizes any bigger than small flakes. These challenges have prevented pristine Graphene from being integrated into consumer technologies.

THE GRAPHENEQ™ SOLUTION

At ORA, we’ve spent the last few years creating GrapheneQ, our own, proprietary Graphene-based nanocomposite formulation. We’ve specifically designed and optimized it for use in acoustic transducers. GrapheneQ is a composite material which is over 95% Graphene by weight. It is formed by depositing flakes of Graphene into thousands of layers that are bonded together with proprietary cross-linking agents. Rather than trying to form one, continuous layer of Graphene, GrapheneQ stacks flakes of Graphene together into a laminate material that preserves the benefits of Graphene while allowing the material to be formed into loudspeaker cones.

Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) Comparison
Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) Comparison

If you’re interested in more technical information on sound, acoustics, soundspeakers, and Ora’s graphene-based headphones, it’s all there on Ora’s Kickstarter campaign page.

The Québec nanotechnology scene in context and graphite flakes for graphene

There are two Canadian provinces that are heavily invested in nanotechnology research and commercialization efforts. The province of Québec has poured money into their nanotechnology efforts, while the province of Alberta has also invested heavily in nanotechnology, it has also managed to snare additional federal funds to host Canada’s National Institute of Nanotechnology (NINT). (This appears to be a current NINT website or you can try this one on the National Research Council website). I’d rank Ontario as being a third centre with the other provinces being considerably less invested. As for the North, I’ve not come across any nanotechnology research from that region. Finally, as I stumble more material about nanotechnology in Québec than I do for any other province, that’s the reason I rate Québec as the most successful in its efforts.

Regarding graphene, Canada seems to have an advantage. We have great graphite flakes for making graphene. With mines in at least two provinces, Ontario and Québec, we have a ready source of supply. In my first posting (July 25, 2011) about graphite mines here, I had this,

Who knew large flakes could be this exciting? From the July 25, 2011 news item on Nanowerk,

Northern Graphite Corporation has announced that graphene has been successfully made on a test basis using large flake graphite from the Company’s Bissett Creek project in Northern Ontario. Northern’s standard 95%C, large flake graphite was evaluated as a source material for making graphene by an eminent professor in the field at the Chinese Academy of Sciences who is doing research making graphene sheets larger than 30cm2 in size using the graphene oxide methodology. The tests indicated that graphene made from Northern’s jumbo flake is superior to Chinese powder and large flake graphite in terms of size, higher electrical conductivity, lower resistance and greater transparency.

Approximately 70% of production from the Bissett Creek property will be large flake (+80 mesh) and almost all of this will in fact be +48 mesh jumbo flake which is expected to attract premium pricing and be a better source material for the potential manufacture of graphene. The very high percentage of large flakes makes Bissett Creek unique compared to most graphite deposits worldwide which produce a blend of large, medium and small flakes, as well as a large percentage of low value -150 mesh flake and amorphous powder which are not suitable for graphene, Li ion batteries or other high end, high growth applications.

Since then I’ve stumbled across more information about Québec’s mines than Ontario’s  as can be seen:

There are some other mentions of graphite mines in other postings but they are tangential to what’s being featured:

  • (my Oct. 26, 2015 posting about St. Jean Carbon and its superconducting graphene and
  • my Feb. 20, 2015 posting about Nanoxplore and graphene production in Québec; and
  • this Feb. 23, 2015 posting about Grafoid and its sister company, Focus Graphite which gets its graphite flakes from a deposit in the northeastern part of Québec).

 

After reviewing these posts, I’ve begun to wonder where Ora’s graphite flakes come from? In any event, I wish the folks at Ora and their Kickstarter funders the best of luck.

Artificial intelligence (AI) company (in Montréal, Canada) attracts $135M in funding from Microsoft, Intel, Nvidia and others

It seems there’s a push on to establish Canada as a centre for artificial intelligence research and, if the federal and provincial governments have their way, for commercialization of said research. As always, there seems to be a bit of competition between Toronto (Ontario) and Montréal (Québec) as to which will be the dominant hub for the Canadian effort if one is to take Braga’s word for the situation.

In any event, Toronto seemed to have a mild advantage over Montréal initially with the 2017 Canadian federal government  budget announcement that the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR), based in Toronto, would launch a Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy and with an announcement from the University of Toronto shortly after (from my March 31, 2017 posting),

On the heels of the March 22, 2017 federal budget announcement of $125M for a Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy, the University of Toronto (U of T) has announced the inception of the Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence in a March 28, 2017 news release by Jennifer Robinson (Note: Links have been removed),

A team of globally renowned researchers at the University of Toronto is driving the planning of a new institute staking Toronto’s and Canada’s claim as the global leader in AI.

Geoffrey Hinton, a University Professor Emeritus in computer science at U of T and vice-president engineering fellow at Google, will serve as the chief scientific adviser of the newly created Vector Institute based in downtown Toronto.

“The University of Toronto has long been considered a global leader in artificial intelligence research,” said U of T President Meric Gertler. “It’s wonderful to see that expertise act as an anchor to bring together researchers, government and private sector actors through the Vector Institute, enabling them to aim even higher in leading advancements in this fast-growing, critical field.”

As part of the Government of Canada’s Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy, Vector will share $125 million in federal funding with fellow institutes in Montreal and Edmonton. All three will conduct research and secure talent to cement Canada’s position as a world leader in AI.

However, Montréal and the province of Québec are no slouches when it comes to supporting to technology. From a June 14, 2017 article by Matthew Braga for CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) news online (Note: Links have been removed),

One of the most promising new hubs for artificial intelligence research in Canada is going international, thanks to a $135 million investment with contributions from some of the biggest names in tech.

The company, Montreal-based Element AI, was founded last October [2016] to help companies that might not have much experience in artificial intelligence start using the technology to change the way they do business.

It’s equal parts general research lab and startup incubator, with employees working to develop new and improved techniques in artificial intelligence that might not be fully realized for years, while also commercializing products and services that can be sold to clients today.

It was co-founded by Yoshua Bengio — one of the pioneers of a type of AI research called machine learning — along with entrepreneurs Jean-François Gagné and Nicolas Chapados, and the Canadian venture capital fund Real Ventures.

In an interview, Bengio and Gagné said the money from the company’s funding round will be used to hire 250 new employees by next January. A hundred will be based in Montreal, but an additional 100 employees will be hired for a new office in Toronto, and the remaining 50 for an Element AI office in Asia — its first international outpost.

They will join more than 100 employees who work for Element AI today, having left jobs at Amazon, Uber and Google, among others, to work at the company’s headquarters in Montreal.

The expansion is a big vote of confidence in Element AI’s strategy from some of the world’s biggest technology companies. Microsoft, Intel and Nvidia all contributed to the round, and each is a key player in AI research and development.

The company has some not unexpected plans and partners (from the Braga, article, Note: A link has been removed),

The Series A round was led by Data Collective, a Silicon Valley-based venture capital firm, and included participation by Fidelity Investments Canada, National Bank of Canada, and Real Ventures.

What will it help the company do? Scale, its founders say.

“We’re looking at domain experts, artificial intelligence experts,” Gagné said. “We already have quite a few, but we’re looking at people that are at the top of their game in their domains.

“And at this point, it’s no longer just pure artificial intelligence, but people who understand, extremely well, robotics, industrial manufacturing, cybersecurity, and financial services in general, which are all the areas we’re going after.”

Gagné says that Element AI has already delivered 10 projects to clients in those areas, and have many more in development. In one case, Element AI has been helping a Japanese semiconductor company better analyze the data collected by the assembly robots on its factory floor, in a bid to reduce manufacturing errors and improve the quality of the company’s products.

There’s more to investment in Québec’s AI sector than Element AI (from the Braga article; Note: Links have been removed),

Element AI isn’t the only organization in Canada that investors are interested in.

In September, the Canadian government announced $213 million in funding for a handful of Montreal universities, while both Google and Microsoft announced expansions of their Montreal AI research groups in recent months alongside investments in local initiatives. The province of Quebec has pledged $100 million for AI initiatives by 2022.

Braga goes on to note some other initiatives but at that point the article’s focus is exclusively Toronto.

For more insight into the AI situation in Québec, there’s Dan Delmar’s May 23, 2017 article for the Montreal Express (Note: Links have been removed),

Advocating for massive government spending with little restraint admittedly deviates from the tenor of these columns, but the AI business is unlike any other before it. [emphasis misn] Having leaders acting as fervent advocates for the industry is crucial; resisting the coming technological tide is, as the Borg would say, futile.

The roughly 250 AI researchers who call Montreal home are not simply part of a niche industry. Quebec’s francophone character and Montreal’s multilingual citizenry are certainly factors favouring the development of language technology, but there’s ample opportunity for more ambitious endeavours with broader applications.

AI isn’t simply a technological breakthrough; it is the technological revolution. [emphasis mine] In the coming decades, modern computing will transform all industries, eliminating human inefficiencies and maximizing opportunities for innovation and growth — regardless of the ethical dilemmas that will inevitably arise.

“By 2020, we’ll have computers that are powerful enough to simulate the human brain,” said (in 2009) futurist Ray Kurzweil, author of The Singularity Is Near, a seminal 2006 book that has inspired a generation of AI technologists. Kurzweil’s projections are not science fiction but perhaps conservative, as some forms of AI already effectively replace many human cognitive functions. “By 2045, we’ll have expanded the intelligence of our human-machine civilization a billion-fold. That will be the singularity.”

The singularity concept, borrowed from physicists describing event horizons bordering matter-swallowing black holes in the cosmos, is the point of no return where human and machine intelligence will have completed their convergence. That’s when the machines “take over,” so to speak, and accelerate the development of civilization beyond traditional human understanding and capability.

The claims I’ve highlighted in Delmar’s article have been made before for other technologies, “xxx is like no other business before’ and “it is a technological revolution.”  Also if you keep scrolling down to the bottom of the article, you’ll find Delmar is a ‘public relations consultant’ which, if you look at his LinkedIn profile, you’ll find means he’s a managing partner in a PR firm known as Provocateur.

Bertrand Marotte’s May 20, 2017 article for the Montreal Gazette offers less hyperbole along with additional detail about the Montréal scene (Note: Links have been removed),

It might seem like an ambitious goal, but key players in Montreal’s rapidly growing artificial-intelligence sector are intent on transforming the city into a Silicon Valley of AI.

Certainly, the flurry of activity these days indicates that AI in the city is on a roll. Impressive amounts of cash have been flowing into academia, public-private partnerships, research labs and startups active in AI in the Montreal area.

…, researchers at Microsoft Corp. have successfully developed a computing system able to decipher conversational speech as accurately as humans do. The technology makes the same, or fewer, errors than professional transcribers and could be a huge boon to major users of transcription services like law firms and the courts.

Setting the goal of attaining the critical mass of a Silicon Valley is “a nice point of reference,” said tech entrepreneur Jean-François Gagné, co-founder and chief executive officer of Element AI, an artificial intelligence startup factory launched last year.

The idea is to create a “fluid, dynamic ecosystem” in Montreal where AI research, startup, investment and commercialization activities all mesh productively together, said Gagné, who founded Element with researcher Nicolas Chapados and Université de Montréal deep learning pioneer Yoshua Bengio.

“Artificial intelligence is seen now as a strategic asset to governments and to corporations. The fight for resources is global,” he said.

The rise of Montreal — and rival Toronto — as AI hubs owes a lot to provincial and federal government funding.

Ottawa promised $213 million last September to fund AI and big data research at four Montreal post-secondary institutions. Quebec has earmarked $100 million over the next five years for the development of an AI “super-cluster” in the Montreal region.

The provincial government also created a 12-member blue-chip committee to develop a strategic plan to make Quebec an AI hub, co-chaired by Claridge Investments Ltd. CEO Pierre Boivin and Université de Montréal rector Guy Breton.

But private-sector money has also been flowing in, particularly from some of the established tech giants competing in an intense AI race for innovative breakthroughs and the best brains in the business.

Montreal’s rich talent pool is a major reason Waterloo, Ont.-based language-recognition startup Maluuba decided to open a research lab in the city, said the company’s vice-president of product development, Mohamed Musbah.

“It’s been incredible so far. The work being done in this space is putting Montreal on a pedestal around the world,” he said.

Microsoft struck a deal this year to acquire Maluuba, which is working to crack one of the holy grails of deep learning: teaching machines to read like the human brain does. Among the company’s software developments are voice assistants for smartphones.

Maluuba has also partnered with an undisclosed auto manufacturer to develop speech recognition applications for vehicles. Voice recognition applied to cars can include such things as asking for a weather report or making remote requests for the vehicle to unlock itself.

Marotte’s Twitter profile describes him as a freelance writer, editor, and translator.

Meet Pepper, a robot for health care clinical settings

A Canadian project to introduce robots like Pepper into clinical settings (aside: can seniors’ facilities be far behind?) is the subject of a June 23, 2017 news item on phys.org,

McMaster and Ryerson universities today announced the Smart Robots for Health Communication project, a joint research initiative designed to introduce social robotics and artificial intelligence into clinical health care.

A June 22, 2017 McMaster University news release, which originated the news item, provides more detail,

With the help of Softbank’s humanoid robot Pepper and IBM Bluemix Watson Cognitive Services, the researchers will study health information exchange through a state-of-the-art human-robot interaction system. The project is a collaboration between David Harris Smith, professor in the Department of Communication Studies and Multimedia at McMaster University, Frauke Zeller, professor in the School of Professional Communication at Ryerson University and Hermenio Lima, a dermatologist and professor of medicine at McMaster’s Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine. His main research interests are in the area of immunodermatology and technology applied to human health.

The research project involves the development and analysis of physical and virtual human-robot interactions, and has the capability to improve healthcare outcomes by helping healthcare professionals better understand patients’ behaviour.

Zeller and Harris Smith have previously worked together on hitchBOT, the friendly hitchhiking robot that travelled across Canada and has since found its new home in the [Canada] Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa.

“Pepper will help us highlight some very important aspects and motives of human behaviour and communication,” said Zeller.

Designed to be used in professional environments, Pepper is a humanoid robot that can interact with people, ‘read’ emotions, learn, move and adapt to its environment, and even recharge on its own. Pepper is able to perform facial recognition and develop individualized relationships when it interacts with people.

Lima, the clinic director, said: “We are excited to have the opportunity to potentially transform patient engagement in a clinical setting, and ultimately improve healthcare outcomes by adapting to clients’ communications needs.”

At Ryerson, Pepper was funded by the Co-lab in the Faculty of Communication and Design. FCAD’s Co-lab provides strategic leadership, technological support and acquisitions of technologies that are shaping the future of communications.

“This partnership is a testament to the collaborative nature of innovation,” said dean of FCAD, Charles Falzon. “I’m thrilled to support this multidisciplinary project that pushes the boundaries of research, and allows our faculty and students to find uses for emerging tech inside and outside the classroom.”

“This project exemplifies the value that research in the Humanities can bring to the wider world, in this case building understanding and enhancing communications in critical settings such as health care,” says McMaster’s Dean of Humanities, Ken Cruikshank.

The integration of IBM Watson cognitive computing services with the state-of-the-art social robot Pepper, offers a rich source of research potential for the projects at Ryerson and McMaster. This integration is also supported by IBM Canada and [Southern Ontario Smart Computing Innovation Platform] SOSCIP by providing the project access to high performance research computing resources and staff in Ontario.

“We see this as the initiation of an ongoing collaborative university and industry research program to develop and test applications of embodied AI, a research program that is well-positioned to integrate and apply emerging improvements in machine learning and social robotics innovations,” said Harris Smith.

I just went to a presentation at the facility where my mother lives and it was all about delivering more individualized and better care for residents. Given that most seniors in British Columbia care facilities do not receive the number of service hours per resident recommended by the province due to funding issues, it seemed a well-meaning initiative offered in the face of daunting odds against success. Now with this news, I wonder what impact ‘Pepper’ might ultimately have on seniors and on the people who currently deliver service. Of course, this assumes that researchers will be able to tackle problems with understanding various accents and communication strategies, which are strongly influenced by culture and, over time, the aging process.

After writing that last paragraph I stumbled onto this June 27, 2017 Sage Publications press release on EurekAlert about a related matter,

Existing digital technologies must be exploited to enable a paradigm shift in current healthcare delivery which focuses on tests, treatments and targets rather than the therapeutic benefits of empathy. Writing in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, Dr Jeremy Howick and Dr Sian Rees of the Oxford Empathy Programme, say a new paradigm of empathy-based medicine is needed to improve patient outcomes, reduce practitioner burnout and save money.

Empathy-based medicine, they write, re-establishes relationship as the heart of healthcare. “Time pressure, conflicting priorities and bureaucracy can make practitioners less likely to express empathy. By re-establishing the clinical encounter as the heart of healthcare, and exploiting available technologies, this can change”, said Dr Howick, a Senior Researcher in Oxford University’s Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences.

Technology is already available that could reduce the burden of practitioner paperwork by gathering basic information prior to consultation, for example via email or a mobile device in the waiting room.

During the consultation, the computer screen could be placed so that both patient and clinician can see it, a help to both if needed, for example, to show infographics on risks and treatment options to aid decision-making and the joint development of a treatment plan.

Dr Howick said: “The spread of alternatives to face-to-face consultations is still in its infancy, as is our understanding of when a machine will do and when a person-to-person relationship is needed.” However, he warned, technology can also get in the way. A computer screen can become a barrier to communication rather than an aid to decision-making. “Patients and carers need to be involved in determining the need for, and designing, new technologies”, he said.

I sincerely hope that the Canadian project has taken into account some of the issues described in the ’empathy’ press release and in the article, which can be found here,

Overthrowing barriers to empathy in healthcare: empathy in the age of the Internet
by J Howick and S Rees. Journaly= of the Royal Society of Medicine Article first published online: June 27, 2017 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/0141076817714443

This article is open access.

Vector Institute and Canada’s artificial intelligence sector

On the heels of the March 22, 2017 federal budget announcement of $125M for a Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy, the University of Toronto (U of T) has announced the inception of the Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence in a March 28, 2017 news release by Jennifer Robinson (Note: Links have been removed),

A team of globally renowned researchers at the University of Toronto is driving the planning of a new institute staking Toronto’s and Canada’s claim as the global leader in AI.

Geoffrey Hinton, a University Professor Emeritus in computer science at U of T and vice-president engineering fellow at Google, will serve as the chief scientific adviser of the newly created Vector Institute based in downtown Toronto.

“The University of Toronto has long been considered a global leader in artificial intelligence research,” said U of T President Meric Gertler. “It’s wonderful to see that expertise act as an anchor to bring together researchers, government and private sector actors through the Vector Institute, enabling them to aim even higher in leading advancements in this fast-growing, critical field.”

As part of the Government of Canada’s Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy, Vector will share $125 million in federal funding with fellow institutes in Montreal and Edmonton. All three will conduct research and secure talent to cement Canada’s position as a world leader in AI.

In addition, Vector is expected to receive funding from the Province of Ontario and more than 30 top Canadian and global companies eager to tap this pool of talent to grow their businesses. The institute will also work closely with other Ontario universities with AI talent.

(See my March 24, 2017 posting; scroll down about 25% for the science part, including the Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy of the budget.)

Not obvious in last week’s coverage of the Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy is that the much lauded Hinton has been living in the US and working for Google. These latest announcements (Pan-Canadian AI Strategy and Vector Institute) mean that he’s moving back.

A March 28, 2017 article by Kate Allen for TorontoStar.com provides more details about the Vector Institute, Hinton, and the Canadian ‘brain drain’ as it applies to artificial intelligence, (Note:  A link has been removed)

Toronto will host a new institute devoted to artificial intelligence, a major gambit to bolster a field of research pioneered in Canada but consistently drained of talent by major U.S. technology companies like Google, Facebook and Microsoft.

The Vector Institute, an independent non-profit affiliated with the University of Toronto, will hire about 25 new faculty and research scientists. It will be backed by more than $150 million in public and corporate funding in an unusual hybridization of pure research and business-minded commercial goals.

The province will spend $50 million over five years, while the federal government, which announced a $125-million Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy in last week’s budget, is providing at least $40 million, backers say. More than two dozen companies have committed millions more over 10 years, including $5 million each from sponsors including Google, Air Canada, Loblaws, and Canada’s five biggest banks [Bank of Montreal (BMO). Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce ({CIBC} President’s Choice Financial},  Royal Bank of Canada (RBC), Scotiabank (Tangerine), Toronto-Dominion Bank (TD Canada Trust)].

The mode of artificial intelligence that the Vector Institute will focus on, deep learning, has seen remarkable results in recent years, particularly in image and speech recognition. Geoffrey Hinton, considered the “godfather” of deep learning for the breakthroughs he made while a professor at U of T, has worked for Google since 2013 in California and Toronto.

Hinton will move back to Canada to lead a research team based at the tech giant’s Toronto offices and act as chief scientific adviser of the new institute.

Researchers trained in Canadian artificial intelligence labs fill the ranks of major technology companies, working on tools like instant language translation, facial recognition, and recommendation services. Academic institutions and startups in Toronto, Waterloo, Montreal and Edmonton boast leaders in the field, but other researchers have left for U.S. universities and corporate labs.

The goals of the Vector Institute are to retain, repatriate and attract AI talent, to create more trained experts, and to feed that expertise into existing Canadian companies and startups.

Hospitals are expected to be a major partner, since health care is an intriguing application for AI. Last month, researchers from Stanford University announced they had trained a deep learning algorithm to identify potentially cancerous skin lesions with accuracy comparable to human dermatologists. The Toronto company Deep Genomics is using deep learning to read genomes and identify mutations that may lead to disease, among other things.

Intelligent algorithms can also be applied to tasks that might seem less virtuous, like reading private data to better target advertising. Zemel [Richard Zemel, the institute’s research director and a professor of computer science at U of T] says the centre is creating an ethics working group [emphasis mine] and maintaining ties with organizations that promote fairness and transparency in machine learning. As for privacy concerns, “that’s something we are well aware of. We don’t have a well-formed policy yet but we will fairly soon.”

The institute’s annual funding pales in comparison to the revenues of the American tech giants, which are measured in tens of billions. The risk the institute’s backers are taking is simply creating an even more robust machine learning PhD mill for the U.S.

“They obviously won’t all stay in Canada, but Toronto industry is very keen to get them,” Hinton said. “I think Trump might help there.” Two researchers on Hinton’s new Toronto-based team are Iranian, one of the countries targeted by U.S. President Donald Trump’s travel bans.

Ethics do seem to be a bit of an afterthought. Presumably the Vector Institute’s ‘ethics working group’ won’t include any regular folks. Is there any thought to what the rest of us think about these developments? As there will also be some collaboration with other proposed AI institutes including ones at the University of Montreal (Université de Montréal) and the University of Alberta (Kate McGillivray’s article coming up shortly mentions them), might the ethics group be centered in either Edmonton or Montreal? Interestingly, two Canadians (Timothy Caulfield at the University of Alberta and Eric Racine at Université de Montréa) testified at the US Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues Feb. 10 – 11, 2014 meeting, the Brain research, ethics, and nanotechnology. Still speculating here but I imagine Caulfield and/or Racine could be persuaded to extend their expertise in ethics and the human brain to AI and its neural networks.

Getting back to the topic at hand the ‘AI sceneCanada’, Allen’s article is worth reading in its entirety if you have the time.

Kate McGillivray’s March 29, 2017 article for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) news online provides more details about the Canadian AI situation and the new strategies,

With artificial intelligence set to transform our world, a new institute is putting Toronto to the front of the line to lead the charge.

The Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence, made possible by funding from the federal government revealed in the 2017 budget, will move into new digs in the MaRS Discovery District by the end of the year.

Vector’s funding comes partially from a $125 million investment announced in last Wednesday’s federal budget to launch a pan-Canadian artificial intelligence strategy, with similar institutes being established in Montreal and Edmonton.

“[A.I.] cuts across pretty well every sector of the economy,” said Dr. Alan Bernstein, CEO and president of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, the organization tasked with administering the federal program.

“Silicon Valley and England and other places really jumped on it, so we kind of lost the lead a little bit. I think the Canadian federal government has now realized that,” he said.

Stopping up the brain drain

Critical to the strategy’s success is building a homegrown base of A.I. experts and innovators — a problem in the last decade, despite pioneering work on so-called “Deep Learning” by Canadian scholars such as Yoshua Bengio and Geoffrey Hinton, a former University of Toronto professor who will now serve as Vector’s chief scientific advisor.

With few university faculty positions in Canada and with many innovative companies headquartered elsewhere, it has been tough to keep the few graduates specializing in A.I. in town.

“We were paying to educate people and shipping them south,” explained Ed Clark, chair of the Vector Institute and business advisor to Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne.

The existence of that “fantastic science” will lean heavily on how much buy-in Vector and Canada’s other two A.I. centres get.

Toronto’s portion of the $125 million is a “great start,” said Bernstein, but taken alone, “it’s not enough money.”

“My estimate of the right amount of money to make a difference is a half a billion or so, and I think we will get there,” he said.

Jessica Murphy’s March 29, 2017 article for the British Broadcasting Corporation’s (BBC) news online offers some intriguing detail about the Canadian AI scene,

Canadian researchers have been behind some recent major breakthroughs in artificial intelligence. Now, the country is betting on becoming a big player in one of the hottest fields in technology, with help from the likes of Google and RBC [Royal Bank of Canada].

In an unassuming building on the University of Toronto’s downtown campus, Geoff Hinton laboured for years on the “lunatic fringe” of academia and artificial intelligence, pursuing research in an area of AI called neural networks.

Also known as “deep learning”, neural networks are computer programs that learn in similar way to human brains. The field showed early promise in the 1980s, but the tech sector turned its attention to other AI methods after that promise seemed slow to develop.

“The approaches that I thought were silly were in the ascendancy and the approach that I thought was the right approach was regarded as silly,” says the British-born [emphasis mine] professor, who splits his time between the university and Google, where he is a vice-president of engineering fellow.

Neural networks are used by the likes of Netflix to recommend what you should binge watch and smartphones with voice assistance tools. Google DeepMind’s AlphaGo AI used them to win against a human in the ancient game of Go in 2016.

Foteini Agrafioti, who heads up the new RBC Research in Machine Learning lab at the University of Toronto, said those recent innovations made AI attractive to researchers and the tech industry.

“Anything that’s powering Google’s engines right now is powered by deep learning,” she says.

Developments in the field helped jumpstart innovation and paved the way for the technology’s commercialisation. They also captured the attention of Google, IBM and Microsoft, and kicked off a hiring race in the field.

The renewed focus on neural networks has boosted the careers of early Canadian AI machine learning pioneers like Hinton, the University of Montreal’s Yoshua Bengio, and University of Alberta’s Richard Sutton.

Money from big tech is coming north, along with investments by domestic corporations like banking multinational RBC and auto parts giant Magna, and millions of dollars in government funding.

Former banking executive Ed Clark will head the institute, and says the goal is to make Toronto, which has the largest concentration of AI-related industries in Canada, one of the top five places in the world for AI innovation and business.

The founders also want it to serve as a magnet and retention tool for top talent aggressively head-hunted by US firms.

Clark says they want to “wake up” Canadian industry to the possibilities of AI, which is expected to have a massive impact on fields like healthcare, banking, manufacturing and transportation.

Google invested C$4.5m (US$3.4m/£2.7m) last November [2016] in the University of Montreal’s Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms.

Microsoft is funding a Montreal startup, Element AI. The Seattle-based company also announced it would acquire Montreal-based Maluuba and help fund AI research at the University of Montreal and McGill University.

Thomson Reuters and General Motors both recently moved AI labs to Toronto.

RBC is also investing in the future of AI in Canada, including opening a machine learning lab headed by Agrafioti, co-funding a program to bring global AI talent and entrepreneurs to Toronto, and collaborating with Sutton and the University of Alberta’s Machine Intelligence Institute.

Canadian tech also sees the travel uncertainty created by the Trump administration in the US as making Canada more attractive to foreign talent. (One of Clark’s the selling points is that Toronto as an “open and diverse” city).

This may reverse the ‘brain drain’ but it appears Canada’s role as a ‘branch plant economy’ for foreign (usually US) companies could become an important discussion once more. From the ‘Foreign ownership of companies of Canada’ Wikipedia entry (Note: Links have been removed),

Historically, foreign ownership was a political issue in Canada in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when it was believed by some that U.S. investment had reached new heights (though its levels had actually remained stable for decades), and then in the 1980s, during debates over the Free Trade Agreement.

But the situation has changed, since in the interim period Canada itself became a major investor and owner of foreign corporations. Since the 1980s, Canada’s levels of investment and ownership in foreign companies have been larger than foreign investment and ownership in Canada. In some smaller countries, such as Montenegro, Canadian investment is sizable enough to make up a major portion of the economy. In Northern Ireland, for example, Canada is the largest foreign investor. By becoming foreign owners themselves, Canadians have become far less politically concerned about investment within Canada.

Of note is that Canada’s largest companies by value, and largest employers, tend to be foreign-owned in a way that is more typical of a developing nation than a G8 member. The best example is the automotive sector, one of Canada’s most important industries. It is dominated by American, German, and Japanese giants. Although this situation is not unique to Canada in the global context, it is unique among G-8 nations, and many other relatively small nations also have national automotive companies.

It’s interesting to note that sometimes Canadian companies are the big investors but that doesn’t change our basic position. And, as I’ve noted in other postings (including the March 24, 2017 posting), these government investments in science and technology won’t necessarily lead to a move away from our ‘branch plant economy’ towards an innovative Canada.

You can find out more about the Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence here.

BTW, I noted that reference to Hinton as ‘British-born’ in the BBC article. He was educated in the UK and subsidized by UK taxpayers (from his Wikipedia entry; Note: Links have been removed),

Hinton was educated at King’s College, Cambridge graduating in 1970, with a Bachelor of Arts in experimental psychology.[1] He continued his study at the University of Edinburgh where he was awarded a PhD in artificial intelligence in 1977 for research supervised by H. Christopher Longuet-Higgins.[3][12]

It seems Canadians are not the only ones to experience  ‘brain drains’.

Finally, I wrote at length about a recent initiative taking place between the University of British Columbia (Vancouver, Canada) and the University of Washington (Seattle, Washington), the Cascadia Urban Analytics Cooperative in a Feb. 28, 2017 posting noting that the initiative is being funded by Microsoft to the tune $1M and is part of a larger cooperative effort between the province of British Columbia and the state of Washington. Artificial intelligence is not the only area where US technology companies are hedging their bets (against Trump’s administration which seems determined to terrify people from crossing US borders) by investing in Canada.

For anyone interested in a little more information about AI in the US and China, there’s today’s (March 31, 2017)earlier posting: China, US, and the race for artificial intelligence research domination.

York University (Toronto, Ontario, Canada) research team creates 3D beating heart and matters of the heart at the Ontario Institute for Regenerative Medicine

I have two items about cardiac research in Ontario. Not strictly speaking about nanotechnology, the two items do touch on topics covered here before, 3D organs and stem cells.

York University and its 3D beating heart

A Feb. 9, 2017 York University news release (also on EurekAlert), describe an innovative approach to creating 3D heart tissue,

Matters of the heart can be complicated, but York University scientists have found a way to create 3D heart tissue that beats in synchronized harmony, like a heart in love, that will lead to better understanding of cardiac health, and improved treatments.

York U chemistry Professor Muhammad Yousaf and his team of grad students have devised a way to stick three different types of cardiac cells together, like Velcro, to make heart tissue that beats as one.

Until now, most 2D and 3D in vitro tissue did not beat in harmony and required scaffolding for the cells to hold onto and grow, causing limitations. In this research, Yousaf and his team made a scaffold free beating tissue out of three cell types found in the heart – contractile cardiac muscle cells, connective tissue cells and vascular cells.

The researchers believe this is the first 3D in vitro cardiac tissue with three cell types that can beat together as one entity rather than at different intervals.

“This breakthrough will allow better and earlier drug testing, and potentially eliminate harmful or toxic medications sooner,” said Yousaf of York U’s Faculty of Science.

In addition, the substance used to stick cells together (ViaGlue), will provide researchers with tools to create and test 3D in vitro cardiac tissue in their own labs to study heart disease and issues with transplantation. Cardiovascular associated diseases are the leading cause of death globally and are responsible for 40 per cent of deaths in North America.

“Making in vitro 3D cardiac tissue has long presented a challenge to scientists because of the high density of cells and muscularity of the heart,” said Dmitry Rogozhnikov, a chemistry PhD student at York. “For 2D or 3D cardiac tissue to be functional it needs the same high cellular density and the cells must be in contact to facilitate synchronized beating.”

Although the 3D cardiac tissue was created at a millimeter scale, larger versions could be made, said Yousaf, who has created a start-up company OrganoLinX to commercialize the ViaGlue reagent and to provide custom 3D tissues on demand.

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

Scaffold Free Bio-orthogonal Assembly of 3-Dimensional Cardiac Tissue via Cell Surface Engineering by Dmitry Rogozhnikov, Paul J. O’Brien, Sina Elahipanah, & Muhammad N. Yousaf. Scientific Reports 6, Article number: 39806 (2016) doi:10.1038/srep39806 Published online: 23 December 2016

This paper is open access.

Ontario Institute for Regenerative Medicine and its heart stem cell research

Steven Erwood has written about how Toronto has become a centre for certain kinds of cardiac research by focusing on specific researchers in a Feb. 13, 2017 posting on the Ontario Institute for Regenerative Medicine’s expression blog (Note: Links have been removed),

You may have heard that Paris is the city of love, but you might not know that Toronto specializes in matters of the heart, particularly broken hearts.

Dr. Ren Ke Li, an investigator with the Ontario Institute for Regenerative Medicine, established his lab at the Toronto General Hospital Research Institute in 1993 hoping to find a way to replace the muscle cells, or cardiomyocytes, that are lost after a heart attack. Specifically, Li hoped to transplant a collection of cells, called stem cells, into a heart damaged by a heart attack. Stem cells have the power to differentiate into virtually any cell type, so if Li could coax them to become cardiomyocytes, they could theoretically reverse the damage caused by the heart attack.

Over the years, Li’s experiments using stem cells to regenerate and repair damaged heart tissue, which progressed all the way through to human clinical trials, pushed Li to rethink his approach to heart repair. Most of the transplanted cells failed to engraft to the host tissue and many of those that did successfully integrate into the patient’s heart remained non-contractile, sitting still beside the rest of the beating heart muscle. Despite this, the treatments were still proving beneficial — albeit less beneficial than Li had hoped. These cells weren’t replacing the lost cardiomyocytes, but they were still helping the patient recover. Li was then just beginning to reveal something that is now well described: transplanting exogenous stem cells (originating outside the patient) onto damaged tissue stimulated the endogenous stem cells to repair that damage. These transplanted stem cells were changing the behaviour of the patient’s own stem cells, enhancing their response to injury.

Li calls this process “rejuvenation” — arguing that the reason older populations can’t recover from cardiac injury is because they have fewer stem cells, and those stem cells have lost their ability to repair and regenerate damaged tissue over time. Li argues that the positive effects he was seeing in his experiments and clinical trials was a restoration or reversal of age-related deterioration in repair capability — a rejuvenation of the aged heart.

Li, alongside fellow OIRM [Ontario Institute for Regenerative Medicine] researcher and cardiac surgeon at Toronto General Hospital, Dr. Richard Weisel, dedicated a large part of their research effort to understanding this process. Weisel explains, “We put young cells into old animals, and we can get them to respond to a heart attack like a young person — which is remarkable!”

A team of researchers led by the duo published an article in Basic Research in Cardiology last month describing a new method to rejuvenate the aged heart, and characterizing this rejuvenation at the molecular and cellular level.

Successfully advancing this research to the clinic is where Weisel thinks Toronto provides a unique advantage. “We have the ability to do the clinical trials — the same people who are working on these projects [in the lab], can also take them into the clinic, and a lot of other places in the world [the clinicians and the researchers] are separate. We’ve been doing that for all the areas of stem cell research.” This unique set of circumstances, Weisel argues, more readily allows for a successful transition from research to clinical practice.

But an integrated research and clinical environment isn’t all the city has to offer to those looking to make substantial progress in stem cell therapies. Dr. Michael Laflamme, OIRM researcher and a leading authority on stem cell therapies for cardiac repair, called his decision to relocate to Toronto from the University of Washington in Seattle “a no-brainer”.

Laflamme focuses on improving the existing approaches to exogenous stem cell transplantation in cardiac repair and believes that solving the problems Li faced in his early experiments is just a matter of finding the right cell type. Laflamme, in an ongoing preclinical trial funded by OIRM, is differentiating stem cells in a bioreactor into ventricular cardiomyocytes, the specific type of cell lost after a heart attack, and delivering those cells directly to the scar tissue in hopes of turning it back into muscle. Laflamme is optimistic these ventricular cardiomyocytes might be just the cell type he’s looking for. Using these cells in animal models, although in a mixture of other cardiac cell types, Laflamme explains, “We’ve shown that those cells will stably engraft and they actually become electrically integrated with the rest of the tissue — they will [beat] in synchrony with the rest of the heart.”

Laflamme states that “Toronto is the place where we can get this stuff done better and we can get it done faster,” citing the existing Toronto-based expertise in both the differentiation of stem cells and the biotechnological means to scale these processes as being unparalleled elsewhere in the world.

It’s not only academic researchers and clinicians that recognize Toronto’s potential to advance regenerative medicine and stem cell therapy. Pharmaceutical giant Bayer, partnered with San Francisco-based venture capital firm Versant Ventures, announced last December a USD 225 million investment in a stem cell biotechnology company called BlueRock Therapeutics — the second largest investment of it’s kind in the history of the biotechnology industry. …

There’s substantially to more Erwood’s piece in the original posting.

One final thought, I wonder if there is a possibility that York University’s ViaGlue might be useful in the work talking place at Ontario Institute for Regenerative Medicine. I realize the two institutions are in the same city but do the researchers even know about each other’s work?

Investigating nanoparticles and their environmental impact for industry?

It seems the Center for the Environmental Implications of Nanotechnology (CEINT) at Duke University (North Carolina, US) is making an adjustment to its focus and opening the door to industry, as well as, government research. It has for some years (my first post about the CEINT at Duke University is an Aug. 15, 2011 post about its mesocosms) been focused on examining the impact of nanoparticles (also called nanomaterials) on plant life and aquatic systems. This Jan. 9, 2017 US National Science Foundation (NSF) news release (h/t Jan. 9, 2017 Nanotechnology Now news item) provides a general description of the work,

We can’t see them, but nanomaterials, both natural and manmade, are literally everywhere, from our personal care products to our building materials–we’re even eating and drinking them.

At the NSF-funded Center for Environmental Implications of Nanotechnology (CEINT), headquartered at Duke University, scientists and engineers are researching how some of these nanoscale materials affect living things. One of CEINT’s main goals is to develop tools that can help assess possible risks to human health and the environment. A key aspect of this research happens in mesocosms, which are outdoor experiments that simulate the natural environment – in this case, wetlands. These simulated wetlands in Duke Forest serve as a testbed for exploring how nanomaterials move through an ecosystem and impact living things.

CEINT is a collaborative effort bringing together researchers from Duke, Carnegie Mellon University, Howard University, Virginia Tech, University of Kentucky, Stanford University, and Baylor University. CEINT academic collaborations include on-going activities coordinated with faculty at Clemson, North Carolina State and North Carolina Central universities, with researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Environmental Protection Agency labs, and with key international partners.

The research in this episode was supported by NSF award #1266252, Center for the Environmental Implications of NanoTechnology.

The mention of industry is in this video by O’Brien and Kellan, which describes CEINT’s latest work ,

Somewhat similar in approach although without a direction reference to industry, Canada’s Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) is being used as a test site for silver nanoparticles. Here’s more from the Distilling Science at the Experimental Lakes Area: Nanosilver project page,

Water researchers are interested in nanotechnology, and one of its most commonplace applications: nanosilver. Today these tiny particles with anti-microbial properties are being used in a wide range of consumer products. The problem with nanoparticles is that we don’t fully understand what happens when they are released into the environment.

The research at the IISD-ELA [International Institute for Sustainable Development Experimental Lakes Area] will look at the impacts of nanosilver on ecosystems. What happens when it gets into the food chain? And how does it affect plants and animals?

Here’s a video describing the Nanosilver project at the ELA,

You may have noticed a certain tone to the video and it is due to some political shenanigans, which are described in this Aug. 8, 2016 article by Bartley Kives for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) online news.

Understanding nanotechnology with Timbits; a peculiarly Canadian explanation

For the uninitiated, Timbits are also known as donut holes. Tim Hortons, founded by ex-National Hockey League player Tim Horton who has since deceased, has taken hold in the Canada’s language and culture such that one of our scientists trying to to explain nanotechnology thought it would be best understood in terms of Timbits. From a Jan. 14, 2017 article (How nanotechnology could change our lives) by Vanessa Lu for thestar.com,

The future is all in the tiny.

Known as nanoparticles, these are the tiniest particles, so small that we can’t see them or even imagine how small they are.

University of Waterloo’s Frank Gu paints a picture of their scale.

“Take a Timbit and start slicing it into smaller and smaller pieces, so small that every Canadian — about 35 million of us — can hold a piece of the treat,” he said. “And those tiny pieces are still a little bigger than a nanoparticle.”

For years, consumers have seen the benefits of nanotechnology in everything from shrinking cellphones to ultrathin televisions. Apple’s iPhones have become more powerful as they have become smaller — where a chip now holds billions of transistors.

“As you go smaller, it creates less footprint and more power,” said Gu, who holds the Canada research chair in advanced targeted delivery systems. “FaceTime, Skype — they are all powered by nanotechnology, with their retina display.”

Lu wrote a second January 14, 2017 article (Researchers developing nanoparticles to purify water) for thestar.com,

When scientists go with their gut or act on a hunch, it can pay off.

For Tim Leshuk, a PhD student in nanotechnology at the University of Waterloo, he knew it was a long shot.

Leshuk had been working with Frank Gu, who leads a nanotechnology research group, on using tiny nanoparticles that have been tweaked with certain properties to purify contaminated water.

Leshuk was working on the process, treating dirty water such as that found in Alberta’s oilsands, with the nanoparticles combined with ultraviolet light. He wondered what might happen if exposed to actual sunlight.

“I didn’t have high hopes,” he said. “For the heck of it, I took some beakers out and put them on the roof. And when I came back, it was far more effective that we had seen with regular UV light.

“It was high-fives all around,” Leshuk said. “It’s not like a Brita filter or a sponge that just soaks up pollutants. It completely breaks them down.”

Things are accelerating quickly, with a spinoff company now formally created called H2nanO, with more ongoing tests scheduled. The research has drawn attention from oilsands companies, and [a] large pre-pilot project to be funded by the Canadian Oil Sands Innovation Alliance is due to get under way soon.

The excitement comes because it’s an entirely green process, converting solar energy for cleanup, and the nanoparticle material is reuseable, over and over.

It’s good to see a couple of articles about nanotechnology. The work by Tim Leshuk was highlighted here in a Dec. 1, 2015 posting titled:  New photocatalytic approach to cleaning wastewater from oil sands. I see the company wasn’t mentioned in the posting so, it must be new; you can find H2nanO here.

Discussion of a divisive topic: the Oilsands

As for the oilsands, it’s been an interesting few days with the Prime Minister’s (Justin Trudeau) suggestion that dependence would be phased out causing a furor of sorts. From a Jan. 13, 2017 article by James Wood for the Calgary Herald,

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s musings about phasing out the oilsands Friday [Jan. 13, 2017] were met with a barrage of criticism from Alberta’s conservative politicians and a pledge from Premier Rachel Notley that the province’s energy industry was “not going anywhere, any time soon.”

Asked at a town hall event in Peterborough [Ontario] about the federal government’s recent approval of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, Trudeau reiterated his longstanding remarks that he is attempting to balance economic and environmental concerns.

“We can’t shut down the oilsands tomorrow. We need to phase them out. We need to manage the transition off of our dependence on fossil fuels but it’s going to take time and in the meantime we have to manage that transition,” he added.

Northern Alberta’s oilsands are a prime target for environmentalists because of their significant output of greenhouse gas emissions linked to global climate change.

Trudeau, who will be in Calgary for a cabinet retreat on Jan. 23 and 24 [2017], also said again that it is the responsibility of the national government to get Canadian resources to market.

Meanwhile, Jane Fonda, Hollywood actress, weighed in on the issue of the Alberta oilsands with this (from a Jan. 11, 2017 article by Tristan Hopper for the National Post),

Fort McMurrayites might have assumed the celebrity visits would stop after the city was swept first by recession, and then by wildfire.

Or when the provincial government introduced a carbon tax and started phasing out coal.

And surely, with Donald Trump in the White House, even the oiliest corner of Canada would shift to the activist back burner.

But no; here comes Jane Fonda.

“We don’t need new pipelines,” she told a Wednesday [Jan. 11, 2017] press conference at the University of Alberta where she also dismissed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as a “good-looking Liberal” who couldn’t be trusted.

Saying that her voice was joined with the “Indigenous people of Canada,” Fonda explained her trip to Alberta by saying “when you’re famous you can help amplify the voices of people that can’t necessarily get a lot of press people to come out.”

Fonda is in Alberta at the invitation of Greenpeace, which has brought her here in support of the Treaty Alliance Against Tar Sands Expansion — a group of Canadian First Nations and U.S. tribes opposed to new pipelines to the Athabasca oilsands.

Appearing alongside Fonda, at a table with a sign reading “Respect Indigenous Decisions,” was Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, who, as leader of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, has led anti-pipeline protests and litigation in British Columbia.

“The future is going to be incredibly litigious,” he said in reference to the approved expansion of the Trans-Mountain pipeline.

The event also included Grand Chief Derek Nepinak of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, which is leading a legal challenge to federal approval of the Line 3 pipeline.

Although much of Athabasca’s oil production now comes from “steam-assisted gravity drainage” projects that requires minimal surface disturbance, on Tuesday Fonda took the requisite helicopter tour of a Fort McMurray-area open pit mine.

As you can see, there are not going to be any easy answers.

Bob McDonald: How is Canada on the ‘forefront of pushing nanotechnology forward’?

Mr. Quirks & Quarks, also known as the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) Bob McDonald, host of the science radio programme Quirks & Quarks, published an Oct. 9, 2016 posting on the programme’s CBC blog about the recently awarded 2016 Nobel Prize for Chemistry and Canada’s efforts in the field of nanotechnology (Links have been removed),

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry awarded this week for developments in nanotechnology heralds a new era in science, akin to the discovery of electromagnetic induction 185 years ago. And like electricity, nanotechnology could influence the world in dramatic ways, not even imaginable today.

The world’s tiniest machines

The Nobel Laureates developed molecular machines, which are incredibly tiny devices assembled one molecule at a time, including a working motor, a lifting machine, a micro-muscle, and even a four wheel drive vehicle, all of which can only be seen with the most powerful electron microscopes. While these lab experiments are novel curiosities, the implications are huge, and Canada is on the forefront of pushing this research forward. [emphasis mine]

McDonald never explains how Canadians are pushing nanotechnology research further but there is this (Note: Links have been removed),

Many universities offer degree programs on the subject while organizations such as the National Institute for Nanotechnology at the University of Alberta, and the Waterloo Institute for Nanotechnology at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, are conducting fundamental research on these new novel materials.

Somehow he never mentions any boundary-pushing research. hmmm

To be blunt, it’s very hard to establish Canada’s position in the field since ‘nanotechnolgy research’ as such doesn’t exist here in the way it does in the United States, Korea, Iran, Germany, China, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Austria, and others. It’s not a federally coordinated effort in Canada despite the fact that we have a Canada National Research Council (NRC) National Institute of Nanotechnology (NINT) in Alberta. (There’s very little information about research on the NINT website.) A Government of Canada NanoPortal is poorly maintained and includes information that is seriously out-of-date. One area where Canadians have been influential has been at the international level where we’ve collaborated on a number of OECD (Organization for Economic and Cooperative Development) projects focused on safety (occupational and environmental, in particular) issues.

Canada’s Ingenuity Lab, a nanotechnology project that appeared promising, hasn’t made many research announcements and seems to be a provincial (Alberta) initiative rather than a federal one. In fact, the most activity in the field of nanotechnology research has been at the provincial level with Alberta and Québec in the lead, if financial investment is your primary measure, and Ontario following, then the other provinces trailing from behind. Unfortunately, I’ve never come across any nanotechnology research from the Yukon or other parts North.

With regard to research announcements, the situation changes and you have Québec and Ontario assuming the lead positions with Alberta following. As McDonald noted, the University of Waterloo has a major nanotechnology education programme and the University of Toronto seems to have a very active research focus in that field (Ted Sargent and solar cells and quantum dots) and the University of Guelph is known for its work in agriculture and nanotechnolgy (search this blog using any of the three universities as a search term). In Québec, they’ve made a number of announcements about cutting edge research. You can search this blog for the names Sylvain Martel, Federico Rosei, and Claude Ostiguy (who seems to work primarily in French), amongst others. CelluForce, based in Quebec, and once  a leader (not sure about the situation these days) in the production of cellulose nanocrystals (CNC). One side comment, CNC was first developed at the University of British Columbia, however, Québec showed more support (provincial funding) and interest and the bulk of that research effort moved.

There’s one more shout out and that’s for Blue Goose Biorefineries in the province of Saskatchewan, which sells CNC and offers services to help companies  research applications for the material.

One other significant area of interest comes to mind, the graphite mines in Québec and Ontario which supply graphite flakes used to produce graphene, a material that is supposed to revolutionize electronics, in particular.

There are other research efforts and laboratories in Canada but these are the institutions and researchers with which I’m most familiar after more than eight years of blogging about Canadian nanotechnology. That said, if I’ve missed any significant, please do let me know in the comments section of this blog.

New photocatalytic approach to cleaning wastewater from oil sands

With oil sands in the title, this story had to mention the Canadian province of Alberta, which has been widely castigated and applauded for its oil extraction efforts in their massive oil sands field. A Nov. 24, 2015 news item on Nanotechnology Now describes a new technology for cleaning the wastewater from oil sands extraction processes,

Researchers have developed a process to remove contaminants from oil sands wastewater using only sunlight and nanoparticles that is more effective and inexpensive than conventional treatment methods.

Frank Gu, a professor in the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Waterloo [in the province of Ontario] and Canada Research Chair in Nanotechnology Engineering, is the senior researcher on the team that was the first to find that photocatalysis — a chemical reaction that involves the absorption of light by nanoparticles — can completely eliminate naphthenic acids in oil sands wastewater, and within hours. Naphthenic acids pose a threat to ecology and human health. Water in tailing ponds left to biodegrade naturally in the environment still contains these contaminants decades later.

A Nov. 23, 2015 University of Waterloo news release, which originated the news item, expands on the theme but doesn’t provide much in the way of technical detail,

“With about a billion tonnes of water stored in ponds in Alberta, removing naphthenic acids is one of the largest environmental challenges in Canada,” said Tim Leshuk, a PhD candidate in chemical engineering at Waterloo. He is the lead author of this paper and a recipient of the prestigious Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship. “Conventional treatments people have tried either haven’t worked, or if they have worked, they’ve been far too impractical or expensive to solve the size of the problem.  Waterloo’s technology is the first step of what looks like a very practical and green treatment method.”

Unlike treating polluted water with chlorine or membrane filtering, the Waterloo technology is energy-efficient and relatively inexpensive. Nanoparticles become extremely reactive when exposed to sunlight and break down the persistent pollutants in their individual atoms, completely removing them from the water. This treatment depends on only sunlight for energy, and the nanoparticles can be recovered and reused indefinitely.

Next steps for the Waterloo research include ensuring that the treated water meets all of the objectives Canadian environmental legislation and regulations required to ensure it can be safely discharged from sources larger than the samples, such as tailing ponds.

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

Solar photocatalytic degradation of naphthenic acids in oil sands process-affected water by Tim Leshuk, Timothy Wong, Stuart Linley, Kerry M. Peru, John V. Headley, Frank Gu. Chemosphere Volume 144, February 2016, Pages 1854–1861 doi:10.1016/j.chemosphere.2015.10.073

This paper is behind a paywall.

Open access week (Oct. 19 – 25, 2015)

In the better late than never category I’m developing for this blog (why can’t I stumble across these things in a more timely fashion?): Canadian Science Publishing (CSP) is celebrating International Open Access Week (Oct. 19 -25, 2015). While the opening event will be past by the time you read this, CSP offers other opportunities to participate (from an Oct. 19, 2015 posting on the Canadian Science Publishing blog),

We’ll be celebrating open access all week, starting with a joint event today [link removed for Oct. 19, 2015 event] at the University of Ottawa Library where we’ll hear from Dr. Jules Blais, founding Senior Editor of our new multidisciplinary open access journal, FACETS. Can’t make it to the event? Don’t worry, we’ll be live tweeting [link removed since the event will be over by the time you read this] and you still have the chance to enter into a draw to win a free e-reader. All you have to do is sign-up for the FACETS newsletter before Friday [Oct. 23, 2015] at midnight [EST?]. Not only will you have the chance to win a great prize, but by signing up for the newsletter you’ll also be the first to know about any FACETS-related news including information about open access, calls for submissions, newly available open access articles and more.

Considering this is open access week, we’d also like to take this opportunity to highlight our open access products and services. …

Introducing CSP Open

To keep things simple, we’ve collected all of our open access products, services and information in one handy place: www.cspopen.com. On this hub page you’ll find links to our fully OA journals, FACETS and Arctic Science. You’ll also find information about OpenArticle, our gold open access option for our subscription-based journals.

There is a listing of other 2015 Open Access Week events in Canada here but I notice it’s not exhaustive. For example, the Canadian Science Publishing/University of Ottawa event was not listed yesterday, Oct. 19, 2015, when I checked. Most of the action appears to be taking place in Alberta and Ontario.