Tag Archives: Prey

Canada has a nanotechnology industry? and an overview of the US situation

It’s always interesting to get some insight into how someone else sees the nanotechnology effort in Canada.

First, there have been two basic approaches internationally. Some countries have chosen to fund nanotechnology/nanoscience research through a national initiative/project/council/etc. Notably the US, the UK, China, and Russia, amongst others, have followed this model. For example, the US National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI)  (a type of hub for research, communication, and commercialization efforts) has been awarded a portion of the US budget every year since 2000. The money is then disbursed through the National Science Foundation.

Canada and its nanotechnology industry efforts

By contrast, Canada has no such line item in its national budget. There is a National Institute of Nanotechnology (NINT) but it is one of many institutes that help make up Canada’s National Research Council. I’m not sure if this is still true but when it was first founded, NINT was funded in part by the federal government and in part by the province of Alberta where it is located (specifically, in Edmonton at the University of Alberta). They claim the organization has grown since its early days although it looks like it’s been shrinking. Perhaps some organizational shuffles? In any event, support for the Canadian nanotechnology efforts are more provincial than federal. Alberta (NINT and other agencies) and Québec (NanoQuébec, a provincially funded nano effort) are the standouts, with Ontario (nano Ontario, a self-organized not-for-profit group) following closely. The scene in Canada has always seemed fragmented in comparison to the countries that have nanotechnology ‘hubs’.

Patrick Johnson in a Dec. 22, 2015 article for Geopolitical Monitor offers a view which provides an overview of nanotechnology in the US and Canada,  adds to the perspective offered here, and, at times, challenges it (Note: A link has been added),

The term ‘nanotechnology’ entered into the public vernacular quite suddenly around the turn of the century, right around the same time that, when announcing the US National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) in 2001 [2000; see the American Association for the Advancement of Science webpage on Historical Trends in Federal R&D, scroll down to the National Nanotechnology Initiative and click on the Jpg or Excel links], President Bill Clinton declared that it would one day build materials stronger than steel, detect cancer at its inception, and store the vast records of the Library of Congress in a device the size of a sugar cube. The world of science fiction took matters even further. In his 2002 book Prey, Michael Creighton [Michael Crichton; see Wikipedia entry] wrote of a cloud of self-replicating nanorobots [also known as, nanobots or self-assemblers] that terrorize the good people of Nevada when a science experiment goes terribly wrong.

Back then the hype was palpable. Federal money was funneled to promising nanotech projects as not to fall behind in the race to master this new frontier of science. And industry analysts began to shoot for the moon in their projections. The National Science Foundation famously predicted that the nanotechnology industry would be worth $1 trillion by the year 2015.

Well here we are in 2015 and the nanotechnology market was worth around $26 billion in [sic] last year, and there hasn’t even been one case of a murderous swarm of nanomachines terrorizing the American heartland. [emphasis mine]

Is this a failure of vision? No. If anything it’s only a failure of timing.

The nanotechnology industry is still well on its way to accomplishing the goals set out at the founding of the NNI, goals which at the time sounded utterly quixotic, and this fact is increasingly being reflected in year-on-year growth numbers. In other words, nanotechnology is still a game-changer in global innovation, it’s just taking a little longer than first expected.

The Canadian Connection

Although the Canadian government is not among the world’s top spenders on nanotechnology research, the industry still represents a bright spot in the future of the Canadian economy. The public-private engine [emphasis mine] at the center of Canada’s nanotech industry, the National Institute for Nanotechnology (NINT), was founded in 2001 with the stated goal of “increasing the competitiveness of Canadian companies; creating technology solutions to meet the needs of society; expanding training programs for researchers and entrepreneurs; and enhancing Canada’s stature in the world of nanotechnology.” This ambitious mandate that NINT set out for itself was to be accomplished over the course of two broad stages: first a ‘seeding’ phase of attracting promising personnel and coordinating basic research, and the then a ‘harvesting’ phase of putting the resulting nanotechnologies to the service of Canadian industry.

Recent developments in Canadian nanotechnology [emphasis mine] show that we have already entered that second stage where the concept of nanotechnology transitions from hopeful hypothetical to real-world economic driver

I’d dearly like to know which recent developments indicate Canada’s industry has entered a serious commercialization phase. (It’s one of the shortcomings of our effort that communication is not well supported.) As well, I’d like to know more about the  “… public-private engine at the center of Canada’s nanotech industry …” as Johnson seems to be referring to the NINT, which is jointly funded (I believe) by the federal government and the province of Alberta. There is no mention of private funding on their National Research Council webpage but it does include the University of Alberta as a major supporter.

I am intrigued and I hope there is more information to come.

US and its nanotechnology industry efforts

Dr. Ambika Bumb has written a Dec. 23, 2015 article for Tech Crunch which reflects on her experience as a researcher and entrepreneur in the context of the US NNI effort and includes a plea for future NNI funding [Note: One link added and one link removed],

Indeed, I am fortunate to be the CEO of a nanomedicine technology developer that extends the hands of doctors and scientists to the cellular and molecular level.

The first seeds of interest in bringing effective nano-tools into the hands of doctors and patients were planted in my mind when I did undergrad research at Georgia Tech.  That initial interest led to me pursuing a PhD at Oxford University to develop a tri-modal nanoparticle for imaging a variety of diseases ranging from cancers to autoimmune disorders.

My graduate research only served to increase my curiosity so I then did a pair of post-doctoral fellowships at the National Cancer Institute and the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute.  When it seemed that I was a shoe-in for a life-long academic career, our technology garnered much attention and I found myself in the Bay Area founding the now award-winning Bikanta [bikanta.com].

Through the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) and Nanotechnology Research and Development Act of 2003, our federal government has invested $20 billion in nanoresearch in the past 13 years.  The return on that investment has resulted in 628 agency‐to‐agency collaborations, hundreds of thousands of publications, and more than $1 trillion in revenue generated from nano‐enabled products. [emphasis mine]

Given that medical innovations take a minimum of 10 years before they translate into a clinical product, already realizing a 50X return is an astounding achievement.  Slowing down would be counter-intuitive from an academic and business perspective.

Yet, that is what is happening.  Federal funding peaked half a decade ago in 2010.  [emphasis mine] NNI investments went from $1.58B in 2010 to $1.170B in 2015 (in constant dollars), a 26% drop.  The number of nano-related papers published in the US were roughly 25 thousand in 2013, while the EU and China produced 33 and 35 thousand, respectively.

History has shown repeatedly how the United States has lost an early competitive advantage in developing high‐value technologies to international competition when commercialization infrastructure was not adequately supported.

Examples include semiconductors, advanced batteries for vehicles, and cement‐based construction materials, all of which were originally developed in the United States, but are now manufactured elsewhere.

It is now time for a second era – NNI 2.0.  A return to higher and sustained investment, the purpose of NNI 2.0 should be not just foundational research but also necessary support for rapid commercialization of nanotechnology. The translation of bench science into commercial reality requires the partnership of academic, industrial, federal, and philanthropic players.

I’m not sure why there’s a difference between Johnson’s ” … worth around $26 billion in [sic] last year …] and Bumb’s “… return on that investment has resulted … more than $1 trillion in revenue generated from nano‐enabled products.” I do know there is some controversy as to what should or should not be included when estimating the value of the ‘nanotechnology enterprise’, for example, products that are only possible due to nanotechnology as opposed to products that already existed, such as golf clubs, but are enhanced by nanotechnology.

Bumb goes on to provide a specific example from her own experience to support the plea,

When I moved from the renowned NIH [US National Institutes of Health] on the east coast to the west coast to start Bikanta, one of the highest priority concerns was how we were going to develop nanodiamond technology without access to high-end characterization instrumentation to analyze the quality of our material.  Purchasing all that equipment was not financially viable or even wise for a startup.

We were extremely lucky because our proposal was accepted by the Molecular Foundry, one of five DOE [US Department of Energy]-funded nanoscience user facilities.  While the Foundry primarily facilitates basic nanoscience projects from academic and national laboratory users, Fortune 500 companies and startups like ours also take advantage of its capabilities to answer fundamental questions and conduct proof of concept studies (~10%).

Disregarding the dynamic intellectual community for a minute, there is probably more than $150M worth of instrumentation at the Foundry.  An early startup would never be able to dream of raising a first round that large.

One of the factors of Bikanta’s success is that the Molecular Foundry enabled us to make tremendous strides in R&D in just months instead of years.  More user facilities, incubator centers, and funding for commercializing nanotech are greatly needed.

Final comments

I have to thank Dr. Bumb for pointing out that 2010 was the peak for NNI funding (see the American Association for the Advancement of Science webpage on Historical Trends in Federal R&D, scroll down to the National Nanotechnology Initiative and click on the Jpg or Excel links). I erroneously believed (although I don’t appear to have written up my belief; if you find any such statement, please let me know so I can correct it) that the 2015 US budget was the first time the NNI experienced a drop in funding.

While I found Johnson’s article interesting I wasn’t able to determine the source for his numbers and some of his material had errors that can be identified immediately, e.g., Michael Creighton instead of Michael Crichton.

Harvard University researcher Chirarattananom’s Flight of the RoboBee

The flight of  Chirarattananom’s RoboBee took place last summer but the research has only now been published. There’s a May 2, 2013 news release on EurekAlert heralding this robotic first from 2012,

In the very early hours of the morning, in a Harvard robotics laboratory last summer, an insect took flight. Half the size of a paperclip, weighing less than a tenth of a gram, it leapt a few inches, hovered for a moment on fragile, flapping wings, and then sped along a preset route through the air.

Like a proud parent watching a child take its first steps, graduate student Pakpong Chirarattananon immediately captured a video of the fledgling and emailed it to his adviser and colleagues at 3 a.m.—subject line, “Flight of the RoboBee.”

“I was so excited, I couldn’t sleep,” recalls Chirarattananon, co-lead author of a paper published this week in Science.

The demonstration of the first controlled flight of an insect-sized robot is the culmination of more than a decade’s work, led by researchers at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard.

Here’s what it looks like,

The tiny robot flaps its wings 120 times per second using piezoelectric actuators -- strips of ceramic that expand and contract when an electric field is applied. Thin hinges of plastic embedded within the carbon fiber body frame serve as joints, and a delicately balanced control system commands the rotational motions in the flapping-wing robot, with each wing controlled independently in real-time. Credit: Kevin Ma and Pakpong Chirarattananon, Harvard University.

The tiny robot flaps its wings 120 times per second using piezoelectric actuators — strips of ceramic that expand and contract when an electric field is applied. Thin hinges of plastic embedded within the carbon fiber body frame serve as joints, and a delicately balanced control system commands the rotational motions in the flapping-wing robot, with each wing controlled independently in real-time.
Credit: Kevin Ma and Pakpong Chirarattananon, Harvard University.

The Harvard [University] Gazette May 2, 2013 article by Caroline Perry, which originated the news release, provides more detail about what makes this particular robotic work unique,

“We had to develop solutions from scratch, for everything,” explains Wood [Robert J. Wood, Charles River Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences at SEAS, Wyss core faculty member, and principal investigator of the National Science Foundation-supported RoboBee project]. “We would get one component working, but when we moved onto the next, five new problems would arise. It was a moving target.”

Flight muscles, for instance, don’t come prepackaged for robots the size of a fingertip.

“Large robots can run on electromagnetic motors, but at this small scale you have to come up with an alternative, and there wasn’t one,” says co-lead author Kevin Y. Ma, a graduate student at SEAS.

The tiny robot flaps its wings with piezoelectric actuators — strips of ceramic that expand and contract when an electric field is applied. Thin hinges of plastic embedded within the carbon fiber body frame serve as joints, and a delicately balanced control system commands the rotational motions in the flapping-wing robot, with each wing controlled independently in real time.

At tiny scales, small changes in airflow can have an outsized effect on flight dynamics, and the control system has to react that much faster to remain stable.

While it’s called the RoboBee project, the researchers’ inspiration for this prototype is a fly. Unlike most flies, this one is tethered, at least for now (from Perry’s article),

The prototypes are still tethered by a very thin power cable because there are no off-the-shelf solutions for energy storage that are small enough to be mounted on the robot’s body. High-energy-density fuel cells must be developed before the RoboBees will be able to fly with much independence.

Future research plans include (from Perry’s article),

… integrating the parallel work of many different research teams that are working on the brain, the colony coordination behavior, the power source, and so on, until the robotic insects are fully autonomous and wireless.

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

Controlled Flight of a Biologically Inspired, Insect-Scale Robot by Kevin Y. Ma,  Pakpong Chirarattananon,  Sawyer B. Fuller, and Robert J. Wood. Science 3 May 2013: Vol. 340 no. 6132 pp. 603-607 DOI: 10.1126/science.1231806

The paper is behind a paywall.

On reading about the RoboBee project I was reminded of Michael Crichton’s 2002 cautionary tale, Prey, which focuses on a possible future where small, swarming bots that fly threaten to take over the world. More happily, I was also inspired musically and found this rendition of the Flight of the Bumblebee,

Have a nice Friday, May 3, 2013!

Swarming robot droplets

The robot droplets are a bit bigger than you might expect, the size of ping pong balls, but the idea is intriguing and for those who’ve read Michael Crichton’s book, Prey, it could seem quite disturbing (from the University of Colorado Boulder multimedia page for ‘tiny robots’),

For anyone unfamiliar with Crichton’s Prey, here’s an excerpt from the Wikipedia entry about the book which features nanobots operating as a swarm,

… As a result, hazardous elements such as the assemblers, the bacteria, and the nanobots were blown into the desert, evolving and eventually forming autonomous swarms. These swarms appear to be solar-powered and self-sufficient, reproducing and evolving rapidly. The swarms exhibit predatory behavior, attacking and killing animals in the wild, using code that Jack himself worked on. Most alarmingly, the swarms seem to possess rudimentary intelligence, the ability to quickly learn and to innovate. The swarms tend to wander around the fab plant during the day but quickly leave when strong winds blow or night falls.

The Dec. 14, 2012 posting by Alan on the Science Business website describes,

A computer science lab at University of Colorado in Boulder is building a miniature, limited-function robot designed to work in a swarm of similar devices. Computer science professor Nikolaus Correll and colleagues are building these small devices that they call droplets as building blocks for increasingly complex systems.

A University of Colorado Boulder Dec. 14, 2012 news release provides more details,

Correll and his computer science research team, including research associate Dustin Reishus and professional research assistant Nick Farrow, have developed a basic robotic building block, which he hopes to reproduce in large quantities to develop increasingly complex systems.

Recently the team created a swarm of 20 robots, each the size of a pingpong ball, which they call “droplets.” When the droplets swarm together, Correll said, they form a “liquid that thinks.”

To accelerate the pace of innovation, he has created a lab where students can explore and develop new applications of robotics with basic, inexpensive tools.

Similar to the fictional “nanomorphs” depicted in the “Terminator” films, large swarms of intelligent robotic devices could be used for a range of tasks. Swarms of robots could be unleashed to contain an oil spill or to self-assemble into a piece of hardware after being launched separately into space, Correll said.

Correll plans to use the droplets to demonstrate self-assembly and swarm-intelligent behaviors such as pattern recognition, sensor-based motion and adaptive shape change. These behaviors could then be transferred to large swarms for water- or air-based tasks.

Correll hopes to create a design methodology for aggregating the droplets into more complex behaviors such as assembling parts of a large space telescope or an aircraft.

There’s also talk about creating gardens in space,

He [Correll] also is continuing work on robotic garden technology he developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2009. Correll has been working with Joseph Tanner in CU-Boulder’s aerospace engineering sciences department to further develop the technology, involving autonomous sensors and robots that can tend gardens, in conjunction with a model of a long-term space habitat being built by students.

Correll says there is virtually no limit to what might be created through distributed intelligence systems.

“Every living organism is made from a swarm of collaborating cells,” he said. “Perhaps some day, our swarms will colonize space where they will assemble habitats and lush gardens for future space explorers.”

The scientists don’t seem to harbour any trepidations, I guess they’re leaving that to the writers.

Michael Crichton publishes nano novel from beyond the grave

Michael Crichton died in Nov. 2008 and his latest book, published Nov. 22, 2011, is titled Micro. It’s being billed as a nanotechnology thriller. From the Nov. 27, 2011 article by Philip Sherwell for The Telegraph,

The result is Mr Crichton’s 17th novel, Micro. About the first third of the 424 pages were written by the best-selling science fiction author himself, the rest by Richard Preston, a former veterinarian turned novelist [best known for Hot Zone].

Set in the rainforest of Hawaii, the techno-thriller features murderous micro-robots, a villainous nanotechnology entrepreneur and Harvard biology students shrunk to less than an inch tall, then exposed to the terrors of killer bugs, among other lethal threats of the natural world. It is, in many ways, a miniature version of the man-versus-dinosaur scenario of the Crichton classic, Jurassic Park.

Crichton did write an earlier ‘nano’ thriller, Prey. (I read it but was not especially impressed.)

If you are interested in the writing aspect, i.e., what is it like to collaborate with someone when all you have are the notes, then Sherwell’s article provides some good insight. Hint: Having the dead author’s longtime personal assistant ready to help is a great advantage.

I did find a Nov. 28, 2011 review of Micro by Jeff VanderMeer for the Los Angeles Times,

What if we had the technology to miniaturize people and objects? That’s the central premise behind “Micro” by “Jurassic Park’s” Michael Crichton and “The Hot Zone’s” Richard Preston. Crichton wrote one-third of “Micro” before his death in 2008 — which third seems largely irrelevant, as the entire novel functions as a well-oiled but oddly soulless machine. All of the edges have been sanded off of prose that is supremely functional and most of the workmanlike characters seem resigned to being transformed into actors on a movie screen

The premise bears a resemblance to the  one they used for the 1989 movie,  Honey, I shrunk the kids. From the Internet Movie Database page for the movie,

The scientist father of two teenage boys accidentally shrinks his and two other neighborhood teens to the size of insects. Now the teens must fight diminutive dangers as the father searches for them.

Of course, Honey, … was a comedy while Crichton specialized in thrillers.

Window sunglasses; insect microids; open access to science research?; theatre and science

Having windows that can darken or lighten according to the amount of sunshine would save money and energy. Such windows have been around for over two decades but they haven’t worked very well. Researchers at the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) are working on a new, more successful generation of such windows (electrochromic windows). From the article by Joe Verrengia on physorg.com,

Insulated windows are made from multiple layers of glass. Typically the spaces between the panes are filled with a gas. Electrochromic windows are made with a very thin stack of dynamic materials deposited on the outside pane.

The dynamic portion consists of three layers: active and counter electrodes separated by an ion conductor layer. NREL researchers are experimenting with electrode layers made of nickel and tungsten oxides; the ions are lithium.

The window changes from clear to tinted when a small electric field is applied and the lithium ions move into the working electrode layers. The change can be triggered by sensors in an automated building management system, or by a flick of a switch. Electrochromic windows can block as much as 98 percent of the direct sunlight. Reversing the polarity of the applied voltage causes the ions to migrate back to their original layer, and the glass returns to clear.

It sounds exciting to someone like me who doesn’t handle the heat or air conditioning well. I just hope they can get the costs down as it’s about $1000 per square metre at this point.

While it’s not strictly speaking nanotechnology, a researcher (Jason Clark) at Purdue University is working on an insect robot, a microid.  From the news item on Nanowerk,

His [Clark’s] concept, a sort of solid-state muscle for microid legs and mandibles, would allow the robot to nimbly traverse harsh environments such as sand or water. The concept appears to be the first to show such insectlike characteristics at the microscale, he said.
“The microids would be able to walk, run, jump, and pick up and move objects many times their own weight,” Clark said. “A microid can also do what no insect or other microrobot can do, which is continue walking if flipped on its back. Who knows, maybe flight is next.”
He also envisions the possibility of hordes of microids working in unison and communicating with each other to perform a complex task.
“You can’t underestimate the power of having thousands of microids working together, much like ant colonies,” he said.

Those last bits about flying and working in unison bring Michael Crichton’s 2002 nanotechnology novel, Prey, to mind. Crichton conceptualized a swarm that was intelligent, voracious, and almost unstoppable. As I recall, Crichton included aspects of insect behaviour, network theory, neuroscience, and self-assembling nanotechnology to describe his swarm. It caused a bit of a kerfuffle in the nanotech research community as scientists were concerned that it might set off a controversy similar to  ‘frankenfoods’ or GM (genetically modified) foods but nothing came of it at the time.

Techdirt had an interesting bit last week about open access to science research,

Via James Boyle, we’re pointed to an editorial that supposedly is all about improving access to research via open access policies for the public — and just so happens to be locked up behind a paywall itself. Apparently, the publisher doesn’t necessarily agree with the authors’ conclusions.

I did check out the link to find the publisher is the journal Science and they require a free registration or a subscription  for access to the editorial. Either Techdirt made a mistake or the editors at Science changed access to the editorial.

Combining insects with the journal, I found a news item on physorg.com about a theatre review published in Science,

Typically science doesn’t bed down with theatre, much less mate with artistic vigor, but the accord between the two is explored in the recent production Heuschrecken [The Locusts] developed by Stefan Kaegi of Rimini Protokoll. “And why not?” asks Arizona State University’s Manfred Laubichler and Gitta Honegger who review the production in the Jan. 29 issue of the journal Science.

The marriage of theatre and science is not new. The Greeks, starting with Aristotle embraced a more integrated relationship of the two. “But a divide came when we associated science with the brain and the arts with emotions,” Honegger says.

The news item goes on to discuss the particulars of the production such as a 60 square metre terrarium of 10,000 locusts, actors, scientists, video cameras, interwoven narratives, and locust music. I am quite inspired by it.

Coincidentally, Rimini Protokoll, the German theatre arts company mentioned in the news item, has a production here in Vancouver (as part of PUSH International Performing Arts Festival 2010 [Jan. 20 to Feb. 6]) which integrates video games and theatre. From the Canwest article by Peter Birnie,

Tim Carlson is a Vancouver playwright who was in Berlin in 2006 for a production of his play Omniscience. Carlson was so impressed by a Rimini Protokoll production of Friedrich Schiller’s Wallenstein trilogy in the German capital that, when he subsequently learned the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival was bringing Rimini Protokoll here, asked to work with them.

“I knew that they shape their shows for particular cities,” Carlson explains, “and they would want to do research here. I had them meet [former city councillor] Jim Green, they visited In-Site and had an architecture tour with [noted critic] Trevor Boddy. One thing that really captured their interest was the video-gaming industry in town, so that kind of turned the light on.”

Electronic artist Brady Marks was hired to find a way that 200 people could game together, and other electronic designers were brought on board to do the 3D modelling. As it does in other productions, Rimini Protokoll then hired local experts — not actors — to perform as themselves.

Marks is the electronic artist directing things, with animator Duff Armour as a game tester, former politician (and Railway Club owner) Bob Williams as a politician and traffic flagger Ellen Schultz as, well, the traffic flagger for the show. Carlson explains that Williams will be something of a political commentator when the audience holds its own presidential election.

You can phone 604.251.1363 to inquire about tickets for the production (Best Before) at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre.

ICON database and Michael Crichton, RIP

The International Council on Nanotechnology (ICON) has announced a new tool for researchers. ICON has a nano-environment, health, and safety search function that will allow researchers to analyze ICON’s database of citations. The tool, which looks nifty, is located here.  For more details about tool capabilities and about the possibilities opened up to researchers, there’s the Nanowerk article.

I saw this reprint of an interview with Michael Crichton, a writer who died last week, discussing his then-new novel Prey. It’s illuminating to discover just what he thought of nanotechnology (one of the emerging technologies dramatised in Prey) and roles of the sciences, technology, and the humanities in society. The interview is here.