Tag Archives: Russia

A potpourri of robot/AI stories: killers , kindergarten teachers, a Balenciaga-inspired AI fashion designer, a conversational android, and more

Following on my August 29, 2018 post (Sexbots, sexbot ethics, families, and marriage), I’m following up with a more general piece.

Robots, AI (artificial intelligence), and androids (humanoid robots), the terms can be confusing since there’s a tendency to use them interchangeably. Confession: I do it too, but, not this time. That said, I have multiple news bits.

Killer ‘bots and ethics

The U.S. military is already testing a Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System. Credit: Lance Cpl. Julien Rodarte, U.S. Marine Corps

That is a robot.

For the purposes of this posting, a robot is a piece of hardware which may or may not include an AI system and does not mimic a human or other biological organism such that you might, under circumstances, mistake the robot for a biological organism.

As for what precipitated this feature (in part), it seems there’s been a United Nations meeting in Geneva, Switzerland held from August 27 – 31, 2018 about war and the use of autonomous robots, i.e., robots equipped with AI systems and designed for independent action. BTW, it’s the not first meeting the UN has held on this topic.

Bonnie Docherty, lecturer on law and associate director of armed conflict and civilian protection, international human rights clinic, Harvard Law School, has written an August 21, 2018 essay on The Conversation (also on phys.org) describing the history and the current rules around the conduct of war, as well as, outlining the issues with the military use of autonomous robots (Note: Links have been removed),

When drafting a treaty on the laws of war at the end of the 19th century, diplomats could not foresee the future of weapons development. But they did adopt a legal and moral standard for judging new technology not covered by existing treaty language.

This standard, known as the Martens Clause, has survived generations of international humanitarian law and gained renewed relevance in a world where autonomous weapons are on the brink of making their own determinations about whom to shoot and when. The Martens Clause calls on countries not to use weapons that depart “from the principles of humanity and from the dictates of public conscience.”

I was the lead author of a new report by Human Rights Watch and the Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic that explains why fully autonomous weapons would run counter to the principles of humanity and the dictates of public conscience. We found that to comply with the Martens Clause, countries should adopt a treaty banning the development, production and use of these weapons.

Representatives of more than 70 nations will gather from August 27 to 31 [2018] at the United Nations in Geneva to debate how to address the problems with what they call lethal autonomous weapon systems. These countries, which are parties to the Convention on Conventional Weapons, have discussed the issue for five years. My co-authors and I believe it is time they took action and agreed to start negotiating a ban next year.

Docherty elaborates on her points (Note: A link has been removed),

The Martens Clause provides a baseline of protection for civilians and soldiers in the absence of specific treaty law. The clause also sets out a standard for evaluating new situations and technologies that were not previously envisioned.

Fully autonomous weapons, sometimes called “killer robots,” would select and engage targets without meaningful human control. They would be a dangerous step beyond current armed drones because there would be no human in the loop to determine when to fire and at what target. Although fully autonomous weapons do not yet exist, China, Israel, Russia, South Korea, the United Kingdom and the United States are all working to develop them. They argue that the technology would process information faster and keep soldiers off the battlefield.

The possibility that fully autonomous weapons could soon become a reality makes it imperative for those and other countries to apply the Martens Clause and assess whether the technology would offend basic humanity and the public conscience. Our analysis finds that fully autonomous weapons would fail the test on both counts.

I encourage you to read the essay in its entirety and for anyone who thinks the discussion about ethics and killer ‘bots is new or limited to military use, there’s my July 25, 2016 posting about police use of a robot in Dallas, Texas. (I imagine the discussion predates 2016 but that’s the earliest instance I have here.)

Teacher bots

Robots come in many forms and this one is on the humanoid end of the spectum,

Children watch a Keeko robot at the Yiswind Institute of Multicultural Education in Beijing, where the intelligent machines are telling stories and challenging kids with logic problems  [donwloaded from https://phys.org/news/2018-08-robot-teachers-invade-chinese-kindergartens.html]

Don’t those ‘eyes’ look almost heart-shaped? No wonder the kids love these robots, if an August  29, 2018 news item on phys.org can be believed,

The Chinese kindergarten children giggled as they worked to solve puzzles assigned by their new teaching assistant: a roundish, short educator with a screen for a face.

Just under 60 centimetres (two feet) high, the autonomous robot named Keeko has been a hit in several kindergartens, telling stories and challenging children with logic problems.

Round and white with a tubby body, the armless robot zips around on tiny wheels, its inbuilt cameras doubling up both as navigational sensors and a front-facing camera allowing users to record video journals.

In China, robots are being developed to deliver groceries, provide companionship to the elderly, dispense legal advice and now, as Keeko’s creators hope, join the ranks of educators.

At the Yiswind Institute of Multicultural Education on the outskirts of Beijing, the children have been tasked to help a prince find his way through a desert—by putting together square mats that represent a path taken by the robot—part storytelling and part problem-solving.

Each time they get an answer right, the device reacts with delight, its face flashing heart-shaped eyes.

“Education today is no longer a one-way street, where the teacher teaches and students just learn,” said Candy Xiong, a teacher trained in early childhood education who now works with Keeko Robot Xiamen Technology as a trainer.

“When children see Keeko with its round head and body, it looks adorable and children love it. So when they see Keeko, they almost instantly take to it,” she added.

Keeko robots have entered more than 600 kindergartens across the country with its makers hoping to expand into Greater China and Southeast Asia.

Beijing has invested money and manpower in developing artificial intelligence as part of its “Made in China 2025” plan, with a Chinese firm last year unveiling the country’s first human-like robot that can hold simple conversations and make facial expressions.

According to the International Federation of Robots, China has the world’s top industrial robot stock, with some 340,000 units in factories across the country engaged in manufacturing and the automotive industry.

Moving on from hardware/software to a software only story.

AI fashion designer better than Balenciaga?

Despite the title for Katharine Schwab’s August 22, 2018 article for Fast Company, I don’t think this AI designer is better than Balenciaga but from the pictures I’ve seen the designs are as good and it does present some intriguing possibilities courtesy of its neural network (Note: Links have been removed),

The AI, created by researcher Robbie Barat, has created an entire collection based on Balenciaga’s previous styles. There’s a fabulous pink and red gradient jumpsuit that wraps all the way around the model’s feet–like a onesie for fashionistas–paired with a dark slouchy coat. There’s a textural color-blocked dress, paired with aqua-green tights. And for menswear, there’s a multi-colored, shimmery button-up with skinny jeans and mismatched shoes. None of these looks would be out of place on the runway.

To create the styles, Barat collected images of Balenciaga’s designs via the designer’s lookbooks, ad campaigns, runway shows, and online catalog over the last two months, and then used them to train the pix2pix neural net. While some of the images closely resemble humans wearing fashionable clothes, many others are a bit off–some models are missing distinct limbs, and don’t get me started on how creepy [emphasis mine] their faces are. Even if the outfits aren’t quite ready to be fabricated, Barat thinks that designers could potentially use a tool like this to find inspiration. Because it’s not constrained by human taste, style, and history, the AI comes up with designs that may never occur to a person. “I love how the network doesn’t really understand or care about symmetry,” Barat writes on Twitter.

You can see the ‘creepy’ faces and some of the designs here,

Image: Robbie Barat

In contrast to the previous two stories, this all about algorithms, no machinery with independent movement (robot hardware) needed.

Conversational android: Erica

Hiroshi Ishiguro and his lifelike (definitely humanoid) robots have featured here many, many times before. The most recent posting is a March 27, 2017 posting about his and his android’s participation at the 2017 SXSW festival.

His latest work is featured in an August 21, 2018 news news item on ScienceDaily,

We’ve all tried talking with devices, and in some cases they talk back. But, it’s a far cry from having a conversation with a real person.

Now a research team from Kyoto University, Osaka University, and the Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute, or ATR, have significantly upgraded the interaction system for conversational android ERICA, giving her even greater dialog skills.

ERICA is an android created by Hiroshi Ishiguro of Osaka University and ATR, specifically designed for natural conversation through incorporation of human-like facial expressions and gestures. The research team demonstrated the updates during a symposium at the National Museum of Emerging Science in Tokyo.

Here’s the latest conversational android, Erica

Caption: The experimental set up when the subject (left) talks with ERICA (right) Credit: Kyoto University / Kawahara lab

An August 20, 2018 Kyoto University press release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, offers more details,

When we talk to one another, it’s never a simple back and forward progression of information,” states Tatsuya Kawahara of Kyoto University’s Graduate School of Informatics, and an expert in speech and audio processing.

“Listening is active. We express agreement by nodding or saying ‘uh-huh’ to maintain the momentum of conversation. This is called ‘backchanneling’, and is something we wanted to implement with ERICA.”

The team also focused on developing a system for ‘attentive listening’. This is when a listener asks elaborating questions, or repeats the last word of the speaker’s sentence, allowing for more engaging dialogue.

Deploying a series of distance sensors, facial recognition cameras, and microphone arrays, the team began collecting data on parameters necessary for a fluid dialog between ERICA and a human subject.

“We looked at three qualities when studying backchanneling,” continues Kawahara. “These were: timing — when a response happens; lexical form — what is being said; and prosody, or how the response happens.”

Responses were generated through machine learning using a counseling dialogue corpus, resulting in dramatically improved dialog engagement. Testing in five-minute sessions with a human subject, ERICA demonstrated significantly more dynamic speaking skill, including the use of backchanneling, partial repeats, and statement assessments.

“Making a human-like conversational robot is a major challenge,” states Kawahara. “This project reveals how much complexity there is in listening, which we might consider mundane. We are getting closer to a day where a robot can pass a Total Turing Test.”

Erica seems to have been first introduced publicly in Spring 2017, from an April 2017 Erica: Man Made webpage on The Guardian website,

Erica is 23. She has a beautiful, neutral face and speaks with a synthesised voice. She has a degree of autonomy – but can’t move her hands yet. Hiroshi Ishiguro is her ‘father’ and the bad boy of Japanese robotics. Together they will redefine what it means to be human and reveal that the future is closer than we might think.

Hiroshi Ishiguro and his colleague Dylan Glas are interested in what makes a human. Erica is their latest creation – a semi-autonomous android, the product of the most funded scientific project in Japan. But these men regard themselves as artists more than scientists, and the Erica project – the result of a collaboration between Osaka and Kyoto universities and the Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute International – is a philosophical one as much as technological one.

Erica is interviewed about her hope and dreams – to be able to leave her room and to be able to move her arms and legs. She likes to chat with visitors and has one of the most advanced speech synthesis systems yet developed. Can she be regarded as being alive or as a comparable being to ourselves? Will she help us to understand ourselves and our interactions as humans better?

Erica and her creators are interviewed in the science fiction atmosphere of Ishiguro’s laboratory, and this film asks how we might form close relationships with robots in the future. Ishiguro thinks that for Japanese people especially, everything has a soul, whether human or not. If we don’t understand how human hearts, minds and personalities work, can we truly claim that humans have authenticity that machines don’t?

Ishiguro and Glas want to release Erica and her fellow robots into human society. Soon, Erica may be an essential part of our everyday life, as one of the new children of humanity.

Key credits

  • Director/Editor: Ilinca Calugareanu
  • Producer: Mara Adina
  • Executive producers for the Guardian: Charlie Phillips and Laurence Topham
  • This video is produced in collaboration with the Sundance Institute Short Documentary Fund supported by the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation

You can also view the 14 min. film here.

Artworks generated by an AI system are to be sold at Christie’s auction house

KC Ifeanyi’s August 22, 2018 article for Fast Company may send a chill down some artists’ spines,

For the first time in its 252-year history, Christie’s will auction artwork generated by artificial intelligence.

Created by the French art collective Obvious, “Portrait of Edmond de Belamy” is part of a series of paintings of the fictional Belamy family that was created using a two-part algorithm. …

The portrait is estimated to sell anywhere between $7,000-$10,000, and Obvious says the proceeds will go toward furthering its algorithm.

… Famed collector Nicolas Laugero-Lasserre bought one of Obvious’s Belamy works in February, which could’ve been written off as a novel purchase where the story behind it is worth more than the piece itself. However, with validation from a storied auction house like Christie’s, AI art could shake the contemporary art scene.

“Edmond de Belamy” goes up for auction from October 23-25 [2018].

Jobs safe from automation? Are there any?

Michael Grothaus expresses more optimism about future job markets than I’m feeling in an August 30, 2018 article for Fast Company,

A 2017 McKinsey Global Institute study of 800 occupations across 46 countries found that by 2030, 800 million people will lose their jobs to automation. That’s one-fifth of the global workforce. A further one-third of the global workforce will need to retrain if they want to keep their current jobs as well. And looking at the effects of automation on American jobs alone, researchers from Oxford University found that “47 percent of U.S. workers have a high probability of seeing their jobs automated over the next 20 years.”

The good news is that while the above stats are rightly cause for concern, they also reveal that 53% of American jobs and four-fifths of global jobs are unlikely to be affected by advances in artificial intelligence and robotics. But just what are those fields? I spoke to three experts in artificial intelligence, robotics, and human productivity to get their automation-proof career advice.

Creatives

“Although I believe every single job can, and will, benefit from a level of AI or robotic influence, there are some roles that, in my view, will never be replaced by technology,” says Tom Pickersgill, …

Maintenance foreman

When running a production line, problems and bottlenecks are inevitable–and usually that’s a bad thing. But in this case, those unavoidable issues will save human jobs because their solutions will require human ingenuity, says Mark Williams, head of product at People First, …

Hairdressers

Mat Hunter, director of the Central Research Laboratory, a tech-focused co-working space and accelerator for tech startups, have seen startups trying to create all kinds of new technologies, which has given him insight into just what machines can and can’t pull off. It’s lead him to believe that jobs like the humble hairdresser are safer from automation than those of, says, accountancy.

Therapists and social workers

Another automation-proof career is likely to be one involved in helping people heal the mind, says Pickersgill. “People visit therapists because there is a need for emotional support and guidance. This can only be provided through real human interaction–by someone who can empathize and understand, and who can offer advice based on shared experiences, rather than just data-driven logic.”

Teachers

Teachers are so often the unsung heroes of our society. They are overworked and underpaid–yet charged with one of the most important tasks anyone can have: nurturing the growth of young people. The good news for teachers is that their jobs won’t be going anywhere.

Healthcare workers

Doctors and nurses will also likely never see their jobs taken by automation, says Williams. While automation will no doubt better enhance the treatments provided by doctors and nurses the fact of the matter is that robots aren’t going to outdo healthcare workers’ ability to connect with patients and make them feel understood the way a human can.

Caretakers

While humans might be fine with robots flipping their burgers and artificial intelligence managing their finances, being comfortable with a robot nannying your children or looking after your elderly mother is a much bigger ask. And that’s to say nothing of the fact that even today’s most advanced robots don’t have the physical dexterity to perform the movements and actions carers do every day.

Grothaus does offer a proviso in his conclusion: certain types of jobs are relatively safe until developers learn to replicate qualities such as empathy in robots/AI.

It’s very confusing

There’s so much news about robots, artificial intelligence, androids, and cyborgs that it’s hard to keep up with it let alone attempt to get a feeling for where all this might be headed. When you add the fact that the term robots/artificial inteligence are often used interchangeably and that the distinction between robots/androids/cyborgs is not always clear any attempts to peer into the future become even more challenging.

At this point I content myself with tracking the situation and finding definitions so I can better understand what I’m tracking. Carmen Wong’s August 23, 2018 posting on the Signals blog published by Canada’s Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine (CCRM) offers some useful definitions in the context of an article about the use of artificial intelligence in the life sciences, particularly in Canada (Note: Links have been removed),

Artificial intelligence (AI). Machine learning. To most people, these are just buzzwords and synonymous. Whether or not we fully understand what both are, they are slowly integrating into our everyday lives. Virtual assistants such as Siri? AI is at work. The personalized ads you see when you are browsing on the web or movie recommendations provided on Netflix? Thank AI for that too.

AI is defined as machines having intelligence that imitates human behaviour such as learning, planning and problem solving. A process used to achieve AI is called machine learning, where a computer uses lots of data to “train” or “teach” itself, without human intervention, to accomplish a pre-determined task. Essentially, the computer keeps on modifying its algorithm based on the information provided to get to the desired goal.

Another term you may have heard of is deep learning. Deep learning is a particular type of machine learning where algorithms are set up like the structure and function of human brains. It is similar to a network of brain cells interconnecting with each other.

Toronto has seen its fair share of media-worthy AI activity. The Government of Canada, Government of Ontario, industry and multiple universities came together in March 2018 to launch the Vector Institute, with the goal of using AI to promote economic growth and improve the lives of Canadians. In May, Samsung opened its AI Centre in the MaRS Discovery District, joining a network of Samsung centres located in California, United Kingdom and Russia.

There has been a boom in AI companies over the past few years, which span a variety of industries. This year’s ranking of the top 100 most promising private AI companies covers 25 fields with cybersecurity, enterprise and robotics being the hot focus areas.

Wong goes on to explore AI deployment in the life sciences and concludes that human scientists and doctors will still be needed although she does note this in closing (Note: A link has been removed),

More importantly, empathy and support from a fellow human being could never be fully replaced by a machine (could it?), but maybe this will change in the future. We will just have to wait and see.

Artificial empathy is the term used in Lisa Morgan’s April 25, 2018 article for Information Week which unfortunately does not include any links to actual projects or researchers working on artificial empathy. Instead, the article is focused on how business interests and marketers would like to see it employed. FWIW, I have found a few references: (1) Artificial empathy Wikipedia essay (look for the references at the end of the essay for more) and (2) this open access article: Towards Artificial Empathy; How Can Artificial Empathy Follow the Developmental Pathway of Natural Empathy? by Minoru Asada.

Please let me know in the comments if you should have an insights on the matter in the comments section of this blog.

AI x 2: the Amnesty International and Artificial Intelligence story

Amnesty International and artificial intelligence seem like an unexpected combination but it all makes sense when you read a June 13, 2018 article by Steven Melendez for Fast Company (Note: Links have been removed),

If companies working on artificial intelligence don’t take steps to safeguard human rights, “nightmare scenarios” could unfold, warns Rasha Abdul Rahim, an arms control and artificial intelligence researcher at Amnesty International in a blog post. Those scenarios could involve armed, autonomous systems choosing military targets with little human oversight, or discrimination caused by biased algorithms, she warns.

Rahim pointed at recent reports of Google’s involvement in the Pentagon’s Project Maven, which involves harnessing AI image recognition technology to rapidly process photos taken by drones. Google recently unveiled new AI ethics policies and has said it won’t continue with the project once its current contract expires next year after high-profile employee dissent over the project. …

“Compliance with the laws of war requires human judgement [sic] –the ability to analyze the intentions behind actions and make complex decisions about the proportionality or necessity of an attack,” Rahim writes. “Machines and algorithms cannot recreate these human skills, and nor can they negotiate, produce empathy, or respond to unpredictable situations. In light of these risks, Amnesty International and its partners in the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots are calling for a total ban on the development, deployment, and use of fully autonomous weapon systems.”

Rasha Abdul Rahim’s June 14, 2018 posting (I’m putting the discrepancy in publication dates down to timezone differences) on the Amnesty International website (Note: Links have been removed),

Last week [June 7, 2018] Google released a set of principles to govern its development of AI technologies. They include a broad commitment not to design or deploy AI in weaponry, and come in the wake of the company’s announcement that it will not renew its existing contract for Project Maven, the US Department of Defense’s AI initiative, when it expires in 2019.

The fact that Google maintains its existing Project Maven contract for now raises an important question. Does Google consider that continuing to provide AI technology to the US government’s drone programme is in line with its new principles? Project Maven is a litmus test that allows us to see what Google’s new principles mean in practice.

As details of the US drone programme are shrouded in secrecy, it is unclear precisely what role Google plays in Project Maven. What we do know is that US drone programme, under successive administrations, has been beset by credible allegations of unlawful killings and civilian casualties. The cooperation of Google, in any capacity, is extremely troubling and could potentially implicate it in unlawful strikes.

As AI technology advances, the question of who will be held accountable for associated human rights abuses is becoming increasingly urgent. Machine learning, and AI more broadly, impact a range of human rights including privacy, freedom of expression and the right to life. It is partly in the hands of companies like Google to safeguard these rights in relation to their operations – for us and for future generations. If they don’t, some nightmare scenarios could unfold.

Warfare has already changed dramatically in recent years – a couple of decades ago the idea of remote controlled bomber planes would have seemed like science fiction. While the drones currently in use are still controlled by humans, China, France, Israel, Russia, South Korea, the UK and the US are all known to be developing military robots which are getting smaller and more autonomous.

For example, the UK is developing a number of autonomous systems, including the BAE [Systems] Taranis, an unmanned combat aircraft system which can fly in autonomous mode and automatically identify a target within a programmed area. Kalashnikov, the Russian arms manufacturer, is developing a fully automated, high-calibre gun that uses artificial neural networks to choose targets. The US Army Research Laboratory in Maryland, in collaboration with BAE Systems and several academic institutions, has been developing micro drones which weigh less than 30 grams, as well as pocket-sized robots that can hop or crawl.

Of course, it’s not just in conflict zones that AI is threatening human rights. Machine learning is already being used by governments in a wide range of contexts that directly impact people’s lives, including policing [emphasis mine], welfare systems, criminal justice and healthcare. Some US courts use algorithms to predict future behaviour of defendants and determine their sentence lengths accordingly. The potential for this approach to reinforce power structures, discrimination or inequalities is huge.

In july 2017, the Vancouver Police Department announced its use of predictive policing software, the first such jurisdiction in Canada to make use of the technology. My Nov. 23, 2017 posting featured the announcement.

The almost too aptly named Campaign to Stop Killer Robots can be found here. Their About Us page provides a brief history,

Formed by the following non-governmental organizations (NGOs) at a meeting in New York on 19 October 2012 and launched in London in April 2013, the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots is an international coalition working to preemptively ban fully autonomous weapons. See the Chronology charting our major actions and achievements to date.

Steering Committee

The Steering Committee is the campaign’s principal leadership and decision-making body. It is comprised of five international NGOs, a regional NGO network, and four national NGOs that work internationally:

Human Rights Watch
Article 36
Association for Aid and Relief Japan
International Committee for Robot Arms Control
Mines Action Canada
Nobel Women’s Initiative
PAX (formerly known as IKV Pax Christi)
Pugwash Conferences on Science & World Affairs
Seguridad Humana en América Latina y el Caribe (SEHLAC)
Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom

For more information, see this Overview. A Terms of Reference is also available on request, detailing the committee’s selection process, mandate, decision-making, meetings and communication, and expected commitments.

For anyone who may be interested in joining Amnesty International, go here.

Seeing into silicon nanoparticles with ‘mining’ hardware

This was not the mining hardware I expected and it enters the picture after this paragraph which has been excerpted from a February 28, 2018 news item on Nanowerk,

For the first time, researchers developed a three-dimensional dynamic model of an interaction between light and nanoparticles. They used a supercomputer with graphic accelerators for calculations. Results showed that silicon particles exposed to short intense laser pulses lose their symmetry temporarily. Their optical properties become strongly heterogeneous. Such a change in properties depends on particle size, therefore it can be used for light control in ultrafast information processing nanoscale devices. …

A March 2, 2018 ITMO University (Russia) press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail and a mention of ‘cryptocurrency mining’ hardware,

Improvement of computing devices today focuses on increasing information processing speeds. Nanophotonics is one of the sciences that can solve this problem by means of optical devices. Although optical signals can be transmitted and processed much faster than electronic ones, first, it is necessary to learn how to quickly control light on a small scale. For this purpose, one could use metal particles. They are efficient at localizing light, but weaken the signal, causing significant losses. However, dielectric and semiconducting materials, such as silicon, can be used instead of metal.

Silicon nanoparticles are now actively studied by researchers all around the world, including those at ITMO University. The long-term goal of such studies is to create ultrafast, compact optical signal modulators. They can serve as a basis for computers of the future. However, this technology will become feasible only once we understand how nanoparticles interact with light.

Silicon nanoparticles
Silicon nanoparticles

“When a laser pulse hits the particle, a lot of free electrons are formed inside,” explains Sergey Makarov, head of ITMO’s Laboratory of Hybrid Nanophotonics and Optoelectronics. “A region saturated with oppositely charged particles is created. It is usually called electron-hole plasma. Plasma changes optical properties of particles and, up until today, it was believed that it spreads over the whole particle simultaneously, so that the particle’s symmetry is preserved. We demonstrated that this is not entirely true and an even distribution of plasma inside particles is not the only possible scenario.”

Scientists found that the electromagnetic field caused by an interaction between light and particles has a more complex structure. This leads to a light distortion which varies with time. Therefore, the symmetry of particles is disturbed and optical properties become different throughout one particle.

“Using analytical and numerical methods, we were the first to look inside the particle and we proved that the processes taking place there are far more complicated than we thought,” says Konstantin Ladutenko, staff member of ITMO’s International Research Center of Nanophotonics and Metamaterials.  “Moreover, we found that by changing the particle size, we can affect its interaction with the light signal. This means we might be able to predict the signal path in an entire system of nanoparticles.”

In order to create a tool to study processes inside nanoparticles, scientists from ITMO University joined forces with colleagues from Jean Monnet University in France.

Sergey Makarov
Sergey Makarov

We developed analytical methods to determine the size range of the particles and their refractive index which would make a change in optical properties likely. Afterwards, we used powerful computational methods to monitor processes inside particles. Our colleagues performed calculations on a computer with graphics accelerators. Such computers are often used for cryptocurrency mining [emphasis mine]. However, we decided to enrich humanity with new knowledge, rather than enrich ourselves. Besides, bitcoin rate had just started to go down then,” adds Konstantin.

Devices based on these nanoparticles may become basic elements of optical computers, just as transistors are basic elements of electronics today. They will make it possible to distribute and redirect or branch the signal.

“Such asymmetric structures have a variety of applications, but we are focusing on ultra-fast signal processing,” continues Sergey.We now have a powerful theoretical tool which will help us develop light management systems that will operate on a small scale – in terms of both time and space”.

Here’s a little more about ITMO University from its Wikipedia entry (Note: Links have been removed),

ITMO University (Russian: Университет ИТМО) is a large state university in Saint Petersburg and is one of Russia’s National Research Universities.[1] ITMO University is one of 15 Russian universities that were selected to participate in Russian Academic Excellence Project 5-100[2] by the government of the Russian Federation to improve their international competitiveness among the world’s leading research and educational centers.[3]

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

Photogenerated Free Carrier-Induced Symmetry Breaking in Spherical Silicon Nanoparticle by Anton Rudenko, Konstantin Ladutenko, Sergey Makarov, and Tatiana E. Itina.Advanced Optical Materials Vol. 6 Issue 5 DOI: 10.1002/adom.201701153 Version of Record online: 29 JAN 2018

© 2018 WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

This paper is behind a paywall.

May 16, 2018: UNESCO’s (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) First International Day of Light

Courtesy: UNESCO

From a May 11, 2018 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) press release (received via email),

UNESCO will welcome leading scientists on 16 May 2018 for the 1st edition of the International Day of Light (02:30-08:00 pm) to celebrate the role light plays in our daily lives. Researchers and intellectuals will examine how light-based technologies can contribute to meet pressing challenges in diverse areas, such as medicine, education, agriculture and energy.

            UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay will open this event, which will count with the participation of renowned scientists, including:

  • Kip Thorne, 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics, California Institute of Technology (United States of America).
  • Claude Cohen-Tannoudji, 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics, Collège de France.
  • Khaled Toukan, Director of the Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East (SESAME) based in Allan, Jordan.

The programme of keynotes and roundtables will address many key issues including science policy, our perception of the universe, and international cooperation, through contributions from experts and scientists from around the world.

The programme also includes cultural events, an illumination of UNESCO Headquarters, a photonics science show and an exhibit on the advances of light-based technologies and art.

            The debates that flourished in 2015, in the framework of the International Year of Light, highlighted the importance of light sciences and light-based technologies in achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Several thousand events were held in 147 countries during the Year placed under the auspices of UNESCO.  

The proclamation of 16 May as the International Day of Light was supported by UNESCO’s Executive Board following a proposal by Ghana, Mexico, New Zealand and the Russian Federation, and approved by the UNESCO General Conference in November 2017.

More information:

I have taken a look at the programme which is pretty interesting. Unfortunately, I can’t excerpt parts of it for inclusion here as very odd things happen when I attempt to ‘copy and paste’. On the plus side. there’s a bit more information about this ‘new day’ on its event page,

Light plays a central role in our lives. On the most fundamental level, through photosynthesis, light is at the origin of life itself. The study of light has led to promising alternative energy sources, lifesaving medical advances in diagnostics technology and treatments, light-speed internet and many other discoveries that have revolutionized society and shaped our understanding of the universe. These technologies were developed through centuries of fundamental research on the properties of light – starting with Ibn Al-Haytham’s seminal work, Kitab al-Manazir (Book of Optics), published in 1015 and including Einstein’s work at the beginning of the 20th century, which changed the way we think about time and light.

The International Day of Light celebrates the role light plays in science, culture and art, education, and sustainable development, and in fields as diverse as medicine, communications, and energy. The will allow many different sectors of society worldwide to participate in activities that demonstrates how science, technology, art and culture can help achieve the goals of UNESCO – building the foundation for peaceful societies.

The International Day of Light is celebrated on 16 May each year, the anniversary of the first successful operation of the laser in 1960 by physicist and engineer, Theodore Maiman. This day is a call to strengthen scientific cooperation and harness its potential to foster peace and sustainable development.

Happy International Day of Light on Wednesday, May 16, 2018!

“Living” bandages made from biocompatible anti-burn nanofibers

A February 16, 2018 news item on Nanowerk announces research from a Russian team about their work on “living” bandages,

In regenerative medicine, and particularly in burn therapy, the effective regeneration of damaged skin tissue and the prevention of scarring are usually the main goals. Scars form when skin is badly damaged, whether through a cut, burn, or a skin problem such as acne or fungal infection.

Scar tissue mainly consists of irreversible collagen and significantly differs from the tissue it replaces, having reduced functional properties. For example, scars on skin are more sensitive to ultraviolet radiation, are not elastic, and the sweat glands and hair follicles are not restored in the area.

The solution of this medical problem was proposed by the researchers from the NUST MISIS [National University of Science and Technology {formerly Moscow Institute of Steel and Alloys State Technological University})] Inorganic Nanomaterials Laboratory, led by PhD Anton Manakhov, a senior researcher. The team of nanotechnology scientists has managed to create multi-layer ‘bandages’ made of biodegradable fibers and multifunctional bioactive nanofilms, which [the bandages] prevent scarring and accelerate tissue regeneration.

A February 14, 2018 NUST MISIS press release, which originated the news item, provides more detail,

The addition of the antibacterial effect by the introduction of silver nanoparticles or joining antibiotics, as well as the increase of biological activity to the surface of hydrophilic groups (-COOH) and the blood plasma proteins have provided unique healing properties to the material.

A significant acceleration of the healing process, the successful regeneration of normal skin covering tissue, and the prevention of scarring on the site of burnt or damaged skin have been observed when applying these bandages made of the developed material to an injured area. The antibacterial components of multifunctional nanofibers decrease inflammation, and the blood plasma with an increased platelet level — vital and multi-purposed for every element in the healing process — stimulates the regeneration of tissues. The bandages should not be removed or changed during treatment as it may cause additional pain to the patient. After a certain period of time, the biodegradable fiber simply “dissolves” without any side effects.

“With the help of chemical bonds, we were able to create a stable layer containing blood plasma components (growth factors, fibrinogens, and other important proteins that promote cell growth) on a polycaprolactone base. The base fibers were synthesized by electroforming. Then, with the help of plasma treatment, to increase the material`s hydrophilic properties, a polymer layer containing carboxyl groups was applied to the surface. The resulting layer was enriched with antibacterial and protein components”, noted Elizabeth Permyakova, one of the project members and laboratory scientists.

The researchers have made images of their work available including this one,

Courtesy NUST MISS [downloaded from http://en.misis.ru/university/news/science/2018-02/5219/]

There is doesn’t appear to be an accompanying published paper.

Interstellar fullerenes

This work from Russia on fullerenes (also known as buckministerfullerenes, C60, and/or buckyballs) is quite interesting and dates back more than a year. I’m not sure why the work is being publicized now but nanotechnology and interstellar space is not covered here often enough so, here goes, (from a January 29, 2018 Kazan Federal University press release (also on EurekAlert), Note: Links have been removed,

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

C60+ – looking for the bucky-ball in interstellar space by G. A. Galazutdinov, V. V. Shimansky, A. Bondar, G. Valyavin, J. Krełowski. Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Volume 465, Issue 4, 11 March 2017, Pages 3956–3964, https://doi.org/10.1093/mnras/stw2948 Published: 22 December 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.

h/t January 29, 2018 news item on Nanowerk

Are copper nanoparticles good candidates for synthesizing medicine?

This research appears to be a collaboration between Russian and Indian scientists. From a December 5, 2017 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

Chemists of Ural Federal University with colleagues from India proved the effectiveness of copper nanoparticles as a catalyst on the example of analysis of 48 organic synthesis reactions (Coordination Chemistry Reviews, “Copper nanoparticles as inexpensive and efficient catalyst: A valuable contribution in organic synthesis”).

One of the advantages of the catalyst is its insolubility in traditional organic solvents. This makes copper nanoparticles a valuable alternative to heavy metal catalysts, for example palladium, which is currently used for the synthesis of many pharmaceuticals and is toxic for cells.

“Copper nanoparticles are an ideal variant of a heterophasic catalyst, since they exist in a wide variety of geometric shapes and sizes, which directly affects the surface of effective mass transfer, so reactions in the presence of this catalyst are characterized by shorter reaction times, selectivity and better yields,” says co-author Grigory Zyryanov, Doctor of Chemistry, Associate Professor of the Department of Organic and Biomolecular Chemistry of UrFU.

A December 11, 2017 (there can be a gap between distributing a press release and posting it on the home website) Ural Federal University press release, which originated the news item, makes the case for copper nanoparticles as catalytic agents,

Copper nanoparticles are inexpensive since there are many simple ways to obtain them from cheap raw materials and these methods are constantly being modified. As a result, it is possible to receive a highly porous structure of catalyst based on copper nanoparticles with a pore size of several tens to several hundred nanometers. Due to the small particle size, the area of the catalytic surface is enormous. Moreover, due to the insolubility of copper nanoparticles, the reactions catalyzed by them go on the surface of the catalyst. After the reaction is completed, the copper nanoparticles that do not interact with the solvents are easily removed, which guarantees the absence of the catalyst admixture in the composition of the final product. These catalysts are already in demand for organic synthesis by the methods of “green chemistry”. Its main principles are simplicity, cheapness, safety of production, recyclability of the catalysts.

One of the promising areas of application of the copper nanoparticle catalyst is, first of all, the creation of medical products using cross-coupling reactions. In 2010, for work in the field of palladium catalyzed cross-coupling reactions, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to scientists from Japan and the USA: Richard Heck, Ei-ichi Negishi and Akira Suzuki. Despite worldwide recognition, palladium catalyzed cross-coupling reactions are undesirable for the synthesis of most medications due to the toxicity of palladium for living cells and the lack of methods for reliable removal of palladium traces from the final product. In addition to toxicity, the high cost of catalysts based on palladium, as well as another catalyst for pharmaceuticals, platinum, makes the use of copper nanoparticles economically and environmentally justified.

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

Copper nanoparticles as inexpensive and efficient catalyst: A valuable contribution in organic synthesis by Nisha Kant Ojha, Grigory V. Zyryanov, Adinath Majee, Valery N. Charushin, Oleg N. Chupakhin, Sougata Santra. Coordination Chemistry Reviews Volume 353, 15 December 2017, Pages 1-57 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ccr.2017.10.004

This paper is behind a paywall.

Editing the genome with CRISPR ((clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats)-carrying nanoparticles

MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) researchers have developed a new nonviral means of delivering CRISPR ((clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats)-CAS9 gene therapy according to a November 13, 2017 news item on Nanowerk,

In a new study, MIT researchers have developed nanoparticles that can deliver the CRISPR genome-editing system and specifically modify genes in mice. The team used nanoparticles to carry the CRISPR components, eliminating the need to use viruses for delivery.

Using the new delivery technique, the researchers were able to cut out certain genes in about 80 percent of liver cells, the best success rate ever achieved with CRISPR in adult animals.

In a new study, MIT researchers have developed nanoparticles that can deliver the CRISPR genome-editing system and specifically modify genes, eliminating the need to use viruses for delivery. Image: MIT News

A November 13, 2017 MIT news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more details about the research and a good description of and comparison between using a viral system and using a nanoparticle-based system to deliver CRISPR-CAS9,

“What’s really exciting here is that we’ve shown you can make a nanoparticle that can be used to permanently and specifically edit the DNA in the liver of an adult animal,” says Daniel Anderson, an associate professor in MIT’s Department of Chemical Engineering and a member of MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research and Institute for Medical Engineering and Science (IMES).

One of the genes targeted in this study, known as Pcsk9, regulates cholesterol levels. Mutations in the human version of the gene are associated with a rare disorder called dominant familial hypercholesterolemia, and the FDA recently approved two antibody drugs that inhibit Pcsk9. However these antibodies need to be taken regularly, and for the rest of the patient’s life, to provide therapy. The new nanoparticles permanently edit the gene following a single treatment, and the technique also offers promise for treating other liver disorders, according to the MIT team.

Anderson is the senior author of the study, which appears in the Nov. 13 [2017] issue of Nature Biotechnology. The paper’s lead author is Koch Institute research scientist Hao Yin. Other authors include David H. Koch Institute Professor Robert Langer of MIT, professors Victor Koteliansky and Timofei Zatsepin of the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology [Russia], and Professor Wen Xue of the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

Targeting disease

Many scientists are trying to develop safe and efficient ways to deliver the components needed for CRISPR, which consists of a DNA-cutting enzyme called Cas9 and a short RNA that guides the enzyme to a specific area of the genome, directing Cas9 where to make its cut.

In most cases, researchers rely on viruses to carry the gene for Cas9, as well as the RNA guide strand. In 2014, Anderson, Yin, and their colleagues developed a nonviral delivery system in the first-ever demonstration of curing a disease (the liver disorder tyrosinemia) with CRISPR in an adult animal. However, this type of delivery requires a high-pressure injection, a method that can also cause some damage to the liver.

Later, the researchers showed they could deliver the components without the high-pressure injection by packaging messenger RNA (mRNA) encoding Cas9 into a nanoparticle instead of a virus. Using this approach, in which the guide RNA was still delivered by a virus, the researchers were able to edit the target gene in about 6 percent of hepatocytes, which is enough to treat tyrosinemia.

While that delivery technique holds promise, in some situations it would be better to have a completely nonviral delivery system, Anderson says. One consideration is that once a particular virus is used, the patient will develop antibodies to it, so it couldn’t be used again. Also, some patients have pre-existing antibodies to the viruses being tested as CRISPR delivery vehicles.

In the new Nature Biotechnology paper, the researchers came up with a system that delivers both Cas9 and the RNA guide using nanoparticles, with no need for viruses. To deliver the guide RNAs, they first had to chemically modify the RNA to protect it from enzymes in the body that would normally break it down before it could reach its destination.

The researchers analyzed the structure of the complex formed by Cas9 and the RNA guide, or sgRNA, to figure out which sections of the guide RNA strand could be chemically modified without interfering with the binding of the two molecules. Based on this analysis, they created and tested many possible combinations of modifications.

“We used the structure of the Cas9 and sgRNA complex as a guide and did tests to figure out we can modify as much as 70 percent of the guide RNA,” Yin says. “We could heavily modify it and not affect the binding of sgRNA and Cas9, and this enhanced modification really enhances activity.”

Reprogramming the liver

The researchers packaged these modified RNA guides (which they call enhanced sgRNA) into lipid nanoparticles, which they had previously used to deliver other types of RNA to the liver, and injected them into mice along with nanoparticles containing mRNA that encodes Cas9.

They experimented with knocking out a few different genes expressed by hepatocytes, but focused most of their attention on the cholesterol-regulating Pcsk9 gene. The researchers were able to eliminate this gene in more than 80 percent of liver cells, and the Pcsk9 protein was undetectable in these mice. They also found a 35 percent drop in the total cholesterol levels of the treated mice.

The researchers are now working on identifying other liver diseases that might benefit from this approach, and advancing these approaches toward use in patients.

“I think having a fully synthetic nanoparticle that can specifically turn genes off could be a powerful tool not just for Pcsk9 but for other diseases as well,” Anderson says. “The liver is a really important organ and also is a source of disease for many people. If you can reprogram the DNA of your liver while you’re still using it, we think there are many diseases that could be addressed.”

“We are very excited to see this new application of nanotechnology open new avenues for gene editing,” Langer adds.

The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Russian Scientific Fund, the Skoltech Center, and the Koch Institute Support (core) Grant from the National Cancer Institute.

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

Structure-guided chemical modification of guide RNA enables potent non-viral in vivo genome editing by Hao Yin, Chun-Qing Song, Sneha Suresh, Qiongqiong Wu, Stephen Walsh, Luke Hyunsik Rhym, Esther Mintzer, Mehmet Fatih Bolukbasi, Lihua Julie Zhu, Kevin Kauffman, Haiwei Mou, Alicia Oberholzer, Junmei Ding, Suet-Yan Kwan, Roman L Bogorad, Timofei Zatsepin, Victor Koteliansky, Scot A Wolfe, Wen Xue, Robert Langer, & Daniel G Anderson. Nature Biotechnology doi:10.1038/nbt.4005 Published online: 13 November 2017

This paper is behind a paywall.

Limitless energy and the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER)

Over 30 years in the dreaming, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) is now said to be 1/2 way to completing construction. A December 6, 2017 ITER press release (received via email) makes the joyful announcement,

WORLD’S MOST COMPLEX MACHINE IS 50 PERCENT COMPLETED
ITER is proving that fusion is the future source of clean, abundant, safe and economic energy_

The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), a project to prove that fusion power can be produced on a commercial scale and is sustainable, is now 50 percent built to initial operation. Fusion is the same energy source from the Sun that gives the Earth its light and warmth.

ITER will use hydrogen fusion, controlled by superconducting magnets, to produce massive heat energy. In the commercial machines that will follow, this heat will drive turbines to produce electricity with these positive benefits:

* Fusion energy is carbon-free and environmentally sustainable, yet much more powerful than fossil fuels. A pineapple-sized amount of hydrogen offers as much fusion energy as 10,000 tons of coal.

* ITER uses two forms of hydrogen fuel: deuterium, which is easily extracted from seawater; and tritium, which is bred from lithium inside the fusion reactor. The supply of fusion fuel for industry and megacities is abundant, enough for millions of years.

* When the fusion reaction is disrupted, the reactor simply shuts down-safely and without external assistance. Tiny amounts of fuel are used, about 2-3 grams at a time; so there is no physical possibility of a meltdown accident.

* Building and operating a fusion power plant is targeted to be comparable to the cost of a fossil fuel or nuclear fission plant. But unlike today’s nuclear plants, a fusion plant will not have the costs of high-level radioactive waste disposal. And unlike fossil fuel plants,
fusion will not have the environmental cost of releasing CO2 and other pollutants.

ITER is the most complex science project in human history. The hydrogen plasma will be heated to 150 million degrees Celsius, ten times hotter than the core of the Sun, to enable the fusion reaction. The process happens in a donut-shaped reactor, called a tokamak(*), which is surrounded by giant magnets that confine and circulate the superheated, ionized plasma, away from the metal walls. The superconducting magnets must be cooled to minus 269°C, as cold as interstellar space.

The ITER facility is being built in Southern France by a scientific partnership of 35 countries. ITER’s specialized components, roughly 10 million parts in total, are being manufactured in industrial facilities all over the world. They are subsequently shipped to the ITER worksite, where they must be assembled, piece-by-piece, into the final machine.

Each of the seven ITER members-the European Union, China, India, Japan, Korea, Russia, and the United States-is fabricating a significant portion of the machine. This adds to ITER’s complexity.

In a message dispatched on December 1 [2017] to top-level officials in ITER member governments, the ITER project reported that it had completed 50 percent of the “total construction work scope through First Plasma” (**). First Plasma, scheduled for December 2025, will be the first stage of operation for ITER as a functional machine.

“The stakes are very high for ITER,” writes Bernard Bigot, Ph.D., Director-General of ITER. “When we prove that fusion is a viable energy source, it will eventually replace burning fossil fuels, which are non-renewable and non-sustainable. Fusion will be complementary with wind, solar, and other renewable energies.

“ITER’s success has demanded extraordinary project management, systems engineering, and almost perfect integration of our work.

“Our design has taken advantage of the best expertise of every member’s scientific and industrial base. No country could do this alone. We are all learning from each other, for the world’s mutual benefit.”

The ITER 50 percent milestone is getting significant attention.

“We are fortunate that ITER and fusion has had the support of world leaders, historically and currently,” says Director-General Bigot. “The concept of the ITER project was conceived at the 1985 Geneva Summit between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. When the ITER Agreement was signed in 2006, it was strongly supported by leaders such as French President Jacques Chirac, U.S. President George W. Bush, and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

“More recently, President Macron and U.S. President Donald Trump exchanged letters about ITER after their meeting this past July. One month earlier, President Xi Jinping of China hosted Russian President Vladimir Putin and other world leaders in a showcase featuring ITER and fusion power at the World EXPO in Astana, Kazakhstan.

“We know that other leaders have been similarly involved behind the scenes. It is clear that each ITER member understands the value and importance of this project.”

Why use this complex manufacturing arrangement?

More than 80 percent of the cost of ITER, about $22 billion or EUR18 billion, is contributed in the form of components manufactured by the partners. Many of these massive components of the ITER machine must be precisely fitted-for example, 17-meter-high magnets with less than a millimeter of tolerance. Each component must be ready on time to fit into the Master Schedule for machine assembly.

Members asked for this deal for three reasons. First, it means that most of the ITER costs paid by any member are actually paid to that member’s companies; the funding stays in-country. Second, the companies working on ITER build new industrial expertise in major fields-such as electromagnetics, cryogenics, robotics, and materials science. Third, this new expertise leads to innovation and spin-offs in other fields.

For example, expertise gained working on ITER’s superconducting magnets is now being used to map the human brain more precisely than ever before.

The European Union is paying 45 percent of the cost; China, India, Japan, Korea, Russia, and the United States each contribute 9 percent equally. All members share in ITER’s technology; they receive equal access to the intellectual property and innovation that comes from building ITER.

When will commercial fusion plants be ready?

ITER scientists predict that fusion plants will start to come on line as soon as 2040. The exact timing, according to fusion experts, will depend on the level of public urgency and political will that translates to financial investment.

How much power will they provide?

The ITER tokamak will produce 500 megawatts of thermal power. This size is suitable for studying a “burning” or largely self-heating plasma, a state of matter that has never been produced in a controlled environment on Earth. In a burning plasma, most of the plasma heating comes from the fusion reaction itself. Studying the fusion science and technology at ITER’s scale will enable optimization of the plants that follow.

A commercial fusion plant will be designed with a slightly larger plasma chamber, for 10-15 times more electrical power. A 2,000-megawatt fusion electricity plant, for example, would supply 2 million homes.

How much would a fusion plant cost and how many will be needed?

The initial capital cost of a 2,000-megawatt fusion plant will be in the range of $10 billion. These capital costs will be offset by extremely low operating costs, negligible fuel costs, and infrequent component replacement costs over the 60-year-plus life of the plant. Capital costs will decrease with large-scale deployment of fusion plants.

At current electricity usage rates, one fusion plant would be more than enough to power a city the size of Washington, D.C. The entire D.C. metropolitan area could be powered with four fusion plants, with zero carbon emissions.

“If fusion power becomes universal, the use of electricity could be expanded greatly, to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions from transportation, buildings and industry,” predicts Dr. Bigot. “Providing clean, abundant, safe, economic energy will be a miracle for our planet.”

*     *     *

FOOTNOTES:

* “Tokamak” is a word of Russian origin meaning a toroidal or donut-shaped magnetic chamber. Tokamaks have been built and operated for the past six decades. They are today’s most advanced fusion device design.

** “Total construction work scope,” as used in ITER’s project performance metrics, includes design, component manufacturing, building construction, shipping and delivery, assembly, and installation.

It is an extraordinary project on many levels as Henry Fountain notes in a March 27, 2017 article for the New York Times (Note: Links have been removed),

At a dusty construction site here amid the limestone ridges of Provence, workers scurry around immense slabs of concrete arranged in a ring like a modern-day Stonehenge.

It looks like the beginnings of a large commercial power plant, but it is not. The project, called ITER, is an enormous, and enormously complex and costly, physics experiment. But if it succeeds, it could determine the power plants of the future and make an invaluable contribution to reducing planet-warming emissions.

ITER, short for International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (and pronounced EAT-er), is being built to test a long-held dream: that nuclear fusion, the atomic reaction that takes place in the sun and in hydrogen bombs, can be controlled to generate power.

ITER will produce heat, not electricity. But if it works — if it produces more energy than it consumes, which smaller fusion experiments so far have not been able to do — it could lead to plants that generate electricity without the climate-affecting carbon emissions of fossil-fuel plants or most of the hazards of existing nuclear reactors that split atoms rather than join them.

Success, however, has always seemed just a few decades away for ITER. The project has progressed in fits and starts for years, plagued by design and management problems that have led to long delays and ballooning costs.

ITER is moving ahead now, with a director-general, Bernard Bigot, who took over two years ago after an independent analysis that was highly critical of the project. Dr. Bigot, who previously ran France’s atomic energy agency, has earned high marks for resolving management problems and developing a realistic schedule based more on physics and engineering and less on politics.

The site here is now studded with tower cranes as crews work on the concrete structures that will support and surround the heart of the experiment, a doughnut-shaped chamber called a tokamak. This is where the fusion reactions will take place, within a plasma, a roiling cloud of ionized atoms so hot that it can be contained only by extremely strong magnetic fields.

Here’s a rendering of the proposed reactor,

Source: ITER Organization

It seems the folks at the New York Times decided to remove the notes which help make sense of this image. However, it does get the idea across.

If I read the article rightly, the official cost in March 2017 was around 22 B Euros and more will likely be needed. You can read Fountain’s article for more information about fusion and ITER or go to the ITER website.

I could have sworn a local (Vancouver area) company called General Fusion was involved in the ITER project but I can’t track down any sources for confirmation. The sole connection I could find is in a documentary about fusion technology,

Here’s a little context for the film from a July 4, 2017 General Fusion news release (Note: A link has been removed),

A new documentary featuring General Fusion has captured the exciting progress in fusion across the public and private sectors.

Let There Be Light made its international premiere at the South By Southwest (SXSW) music and film festival in March [2017] to critical acclaim. The film was quickly purchased by Amazon Video, where it will be available for more than 70 million users to stream.

Let There Be Light follows scientists at General Fusion, ITER and Lawrenceville Plasma Physics in their pursuit of a clean, safe and abundant source of energy to power the world.

The feature length documentary has screened internationally across Europe and North America. Most recently it was shown at the Hot Docs film festival in Toronto, where General Fusion founder and Chief Scientist Dr. Michel Laberge joined fellow fusion physicist Dr. Mark Henderson from ITER at a series of Q&A panels with the filmmakers.

Laberge and Henderson were also interviewed by the popular CBC radio science show Quirks and Quarks, discussing different approaches to fusion, its potential benefits, and the challenges it faces.

It is yet to be confirmed when the film will be release for streaming, check Amazon Video for details.

You can find out more about General Fusion here.

Brief final comment

ITER is a breathtaking effort but if you’ve read about other large scale projects such as building a railway across the Canadian Rocky Mountains, establishing telecommunications in an  astonishing number of countries around the world, getting someone to the moon, eliminating small pox, building the pyramids, etc., it seems standard operating procedure both for the successes I’ve described and for the failures we’ve forgotten. Where ITER will finally rest on the continuum between success and failure is yet to be determined but the problems experienced so far are not necessarily a predictor.

I wish the engineers, scientists, visionaries, and others great success with finding better ways to produce energy.

Gold nanoparticles used to catalyze biofuel waste and create a useful additive

This work is the result of an international collaboration including Russia (from a May 23, 2017 news item on Nanowerk),

Gold nanoparticles serve as catalysts for obtaining valuable chemical products based on glycerol. Scientists from Tomsk Polytechnic University and their international colleagues are developing gold catalysts to recycle one of the main byproducts of biofuel production. The obtained products are in high demand in medicine, agriculture, cosmetic industry and other sectors.

Scientists from the University of Milano (Italy), the National Autonomous University of Mexico, the Institute of Catalysis and Petrochemistry of Madrid (Spain) and the University of Porto (Portugal) take part in the study of gold nanoparticles.

A May 23, 2027 Tomsk Polytechnic University press release, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

Today the production of biofuels is an important area in many countries. They can be obtained from a great variety of biomasses. In Latin America it is orange and tangerine peel as well as banana skin. In USA biofuels are produced from corn, in the central part of Russia and Europe – from rape (Brassica napus). When processing these plants into biofuels a large amount of glycerol is formed. Its esters constitute the basis of oils and fats. Glycerol is widely used in cosmetic industry as an individual product. However, much more glycerol is obtained in the production of biofuels – many thousands of tons a year. As a result, unused glycerol merely becomes waste,’ describes the problem Alexey Pestryakov, the Head of the Department of Physical and Analytical Chemistry. ‘Now, a lot of research groups are engaged in this issue as to how to transform excess glycerol into other useful products. Along with our foreign colleagues we offered catalysts based on gold nanoparticles.’

The authors of the research note that catalytic oxidation on gold is one of the most effective techniques to obtain from glycerol such useful products as aldehydes, esters, carboxylic acids and other substances.

‘All these substances are products of fine organic chemistry and are in demand in a wide range of industries, first of all, in the pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries. In agriculture they are applied as part of different feed additives, veterinary drugs, fertilizers, plant treatment products, etc.

Thus, unused glycerol after being processed will further be applied,’ sums up Alexey Pestryakov.

Gold catalysts are super active. They can enter into chemical reactions with other substances at room temperature (other catalysts need to be heated), in some case even under zero. However, gold can be a catalyst only at the nanolevel.

‘If you take a piece of gold, even very tiny, there will be no chemical reaction. In order to make gold become chemically active, the size of its particle should be less than two nanometers. Only then it gets its amazing properties,’ explains the scientist.

As a catalyst gold was discovered not so long ago, in the early 1990s, by Japanese chemists.

To date, TPU scientists and their colleagues are not the only ones who develop such catalysts.

Unlike their counterparts the gold catalysts developed at TPU are more stable (they retain their activity longer).

‘A great challenge in this area is that gold catalysts are very rapidly deactivated, not only during work, but even during storage. Our objective is to ensure their longer shelf life. It is also important to use oxygen as an oxidizer, since toxic and corrosive peroxide compounds are often used for such purposes,’ says Alexey Petryakov.

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

More Insights into Support and Preparation Method Effects in Gold Catalyzed Glycerol Oxidation by Nina Bogdanchikova, Inga Tuzovskaya, Laura Prati, Alberto Villa, Alexey Pestryakov, Mario Farías. Current Organic Synthesis VOLUME: 14 ISSUE: 3 Year: 2017Page: [377 – 382] Pages: 6 DOI: 10.2174/1570179413666161031114833

This paper is behind a paywall. (Scroll down the page to find the article.)