Tag Archives: sensors

‘Ship in a bottle’ concept helps to create an artificial nose

I love the description of this latest artificial nose, ,as being based on a ‘ship in a bottle’ concept, from an Oct. 10, 2013 Rice University news release (also on EurekAlert),

Rice University scientists took a lesson from craftsmen of old to assemble microscopic compounds that warn of the presence of dangerous fumes from solvents.

The researchers combined a common mineral, zeolite, with a metallic compound based on rhenium to make an “artificial nose” that can sniff out solvent gases. They found that in the presence of the compound, each gas had a photoluminescent “fingerprint” with a specific intensity, lifetime and color.

The challenge for Martí and his team was to get their large metallic particles through the much smaller pores of a zeolite cage. The answer: Do it old-school. In their process, small chemical components enter the cage, find each other and self-assemble into rhenium complexes. Then they’re stuck — like a ship in a bottle.

The news release goes on to relate how the researchers created their ‘ship in a bottle’ or zeolite cage,

“We sequentially load the individual parts of the complex into the zeolite,” Martí said. “The parts are smaller than the pores, but when they self-assemble inside the zeolite, they’re trapped.” Once washed to eliminate complexes that form outside the zeolites, the compound is ready for use.

The relatively simple technique, which was initially developed and studied by two Rice alumni while they were undergraduate students in Martí’s lab, could provide a scalable, inexpensive platform to monitor toxic vapors from industrial solvents.

Solvents are liquid chemicals, often petroleum-based, that are widely used to dissolve solid materials. They are found in paints, thinners, aerosol sprays, dyes, marking pens, adhesives and many other products.

They also evaporate quickly. Solvent vapors, which are hazardous to inhale and can be highly flammable, are often denser than air and gather at floor level, where they can build to dangerous amounts unless detected.

Martí said platinum, gold, palladium and copper salts are often used to detect vapors, because they change color in the presence of solvents. The rhenium-based supramolecular complex was known to fluoresce in the presence of some solvents, but dealing with vapors is a different story.

“If the complexes are in a solid state, they are too close to each other and gases can’t interact with them,” he said. “So we started thinking of ways to create space between them.”

Enter zeolites. “These zeolites are cages with big cavities and small pores,” Martí said. “The pores are big enough — at about 7.4 angstroms — for most gas-phase molecules to enter. The question was how to trap the bigger rhenium complexes inside.”

Other groups have trapped ruthenium complexes in zeolites, but these complexes were not ideal to detect solvents. Then-undergraduates Ty Hanna and, later, Zack Panos developed the method to put rhenium complexes inside zeolites. The results were outstanding, Martí said.

Like canaries in a coalmine, the caged complexes strongly signal the presence of a vapor by the color and intensity of their photoluminescent glow in ultraviolet light.

Martí said nobody had studied the third key property — the amount of time the complex remains in an excited state. That ranges from less than 1,000 nanoseconds for water and ammonia to “a quite long” 4,000-plus nanoseconds for pyridine. It’s different for every type of vapor, he said.

“We concluded that every individual vapor has a set of photophysical properties that is unique for that solvent,” he said. “Each one has a unique fingerprint.”

With the ability to detect three distinct characteristics for each vapor, a team led by graduate student Avishek Saha built a three-dimensional plot to map the fingerprints of 17 types of solvents. They found categories of solvents — nonpolar, alcohols, protics (which include water) and aprotics — tended to gather in their own areas.

“That’s another interesting thing,” Martí said. “Different solvent groups occupy different areas in the map. So even if a solvent hasn’t been studied, our material will help people recognize the category it falls into.”

He said the group plans to test more solvents and suggested the material may also be useful for detecting the presence of other volatile species like explosives.

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

Three-Dimensional Solvent-Vapor Map Generated by Supramolecular Metal-Complex Entrapment by Avishek Saha, Zack Panos, Ty Hanna, Kewei Huang, Mayra Hernández-Rivera, and Prof. Angel A. Martí.
Angewandte Chemie International Edition Article first published online: 2 OCT 2013 DOI: 10.1002/anie.201305762

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

The article is behind a paywall.

The reference to a ‘ship in a bottle’ brought me back to my childhood. Our parents had a ‘ship in a bottle’ but neither my sister nor I were allowed to touch it. In fact, it was brought out for viewing purposes only on special occasions. I no longer remember what made it so precious but I do recall how magical it seemed. Luckily the internet has made satisfying one’s curiosity easy; I found a picture and instructions on how to make ‘a ship in a bottle’,

Credit: Goaly (?) [downloaded from http://www.instructables.com/id/Building-A-Ship-In-A-Bottle/]

Credit: Goaly (?) [downloaded from http://www.instructables.com/id/Building-A-Ship-In-A-Bottle/]

You can find instructions by Goaly for Building a Ship in a Bottle here.

Happy Thanksgiving Weekend!

Carbon nanotubes one way: gas and other flexible sensors

A Sept. 24, 2013 Technische Universitaet Muenchen (TUM) press release (also on EurekAlert) promises that flexible sensors are on the horizon,

Carbon nanotube-based gas sensors created at TUM offer a unique combination of characteristics that can’t be matched by any of the alternative technologies. They rapidly detect and continuously respond to extremely small changes in the concentrations of gases including ammonia, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen oxide. They operate at room temperature and consume very little power. Furthermore, as the TUM researchers report in their latest papers, such devices can be fabricated on flexible backing materials through large-area, low-cost processes.

Thus it becomes realistic to envision plastic food wrap that incorporates flexible, disposable gas sensors, providing a more meaningful indicator of food freshness than the sell-by date. Measuring carbon dioxide, for example, can help predict the shelf life of meat. “Smart packaging” – assuming consumers find it acceptable and the devices’ non-toxic nature can be demonstrated – could enhance food safety and might also vastly reduce the amount of food that is wasted. Used in a different setting, the same sort of gas sensor could make it less expensive and more practical to monitor indoor air quality in real time.

Dexter Johnson in a Sept. 26, 2013 posting on Nanoclast (an IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] blog) warns (Note: Links have been removed),

While this sounds great, the obstacle preventing this from becoming a reality has always been cost. Thin-film sensory packaging may make sense for a high-cost item, but for an inexpensive grocery store product, it’s hard to justify an additional cost that may be as much as the product itself. I made this point nearly a decade ago in report I authored titled, “The Future of Nanotechnology in Printing and Packaging”.

This doesn’t even take into account the often biased opinion people have about nanotechnology in relation to food.

Dexter recommends the researchers focus their commercialization efforts on robotic skins and other high ticket applications.

In reading the description of how the researchers created these flexible sensors, Dexter’s concerns are brought int high relief,

The most basic building block for this technology is a single cylindrical molecule, a rolled-up sheet of carbon atoms that are linked in a honeycomb pattern. This so-called carbon nanotube could be likened to an unimaginably long garden hose: a hollow tube just a nanometer or so in diameter but perhaps millions of times as long as it is wide. Individual carbon nanotubes exhibit amazing and useful properties, but in this case the researchers are more interested in what can be done with them en masse.

Laid down in thin films, randomly oriented carbon nanotubes form conductive networks that can serve as electrodes; patterned and layered films can function as sensors or transistors. “In fact,” Prof. Lugli [Prof. Paolo Lugli, director of TUM's Nanoelectronics Institute] explains, “the electrical resistivity of such films can be modulated by either an applied voltage (to provide a transistor action) or by the adsorption of gas molecules, which in turn is a signature of the gas concentration for sensor applications.” And as a basis for gas sensors in particular, carbon nanotubes combine advantages (and avoid shortcomings) of more established materials, such as polymer-based organic electronics and solid-state metal-oxide semiconductors. What has been lacking until now is a reliable, reproducible, low-cost fabrication method.

Spray deposition, supplemented if necessary by transfer printing, meets that need. An aqueous solution of carbon nanotubes looks like a bottle of black ink and can be handled in similar ways. Thus devices can be sprayed – from a computer-controlled robotic nozzle – onto virtually any kind of substrate, including large-area sheets of flexible plastic. There is no need for expensive clean-room facilities.

“To us it was important to develop an easily scalable technology platform for manufacturing large-area printed and flexible electronics based on organic semiconductors and nanomaterials,” Abdellah says. “To that end, spray deposition forms the core of our processing technology.”

Remaining technical challenges arise largely from application-specific requirements, such as the need for gas sensors to be selective as well as sensitive.

Here are citations for and links to three of the researchers’ papers,

Fabrication of carbon nanotube thin films on flexible substrates by spray deposition and transfer printing. Ahmed Abdelhalim, Alaa Abdellah, Giuseppe Scarpa, Paolo Lugli. Carbon, Vol. 61, September 2013, 72-79. DOI: 10.1016/j.carbon.2013.04.069

Flexible carbon nanotube-based gas sensors fabricated by large-scale spray deposition.
Alaa Abdellah, Zubair Ahmad, Philipp Köhler, Florin Loghin, Alexander Weise, Giuseppe Scarpa, Paolo Lugli. IEEE Sensors Journal, Vol. 13 Issue 10, October 2013, 4014-4021. DOI: 10.1109/JSEN.2013.2265775

Scalable spray deposition process for high performance carbon nanotube gas sensors. Alaa Abdellah, Ahmed Abdelhalim, Markus Horn, Giuseppe Scarpa, and Paolo Lugli. IEEE Transactions on Nanotechnology 12, 174-181, 2013. DOI: 10.1109/TNANO.2013.2238248

All three papers are behind paywalls.

In one of those coincidences that take place from time to time, I wrote about an upcoming event taking place in the Guardian’s London offices, a panel discussion on nanotechnology and food,in a Sept.  26, 2013 posting.

Detecting date rape drugs before you drink

A July 3, 2013 article by Gail Weinreb for Globes.co features an Israeli company’s (Drink Science) nanotechnology-enabled date rape sensor,

Date rape drugs are anesthetics used by the pharmaceutical industry. Users of the drug obtain them illegally, but do not develop them at home, so there is little variability between the different versions, and they can be detected by a single test. However, a test for detecting date rape drugs does not solve the problem of the rape of a victim who has ingested the drug or other drugs such as Ecstasy (or rape that does involve the use of drugs at all), but only the specific use of anesthetics.

The chemical part of the test uses a solvent, which when it comes in contract with a date rape drug, precipitates making the beverage turbid. The product is designed like a drinks mix or cosmetics (such as eyeliner). A woman drops the product into the glass and waits for a reaction. In cases of a dark nightclub, for example, where it is impossible to see whether the drink has become turbid or remained clear, the test includes another trick – it has an LED light. The light diminishes in turbidity. “We found 100% accuracy in the drinks we tested,” Avidor [CEO Dr. Yoav Avidor] said. “The product works on many kinds of drinks.”

According to Weinrreb’s article, Avidor expects the product to be on the market in nine months.

Unfortunately, there’s not much information about the company or the product on its website although you can find news coverage dating from August 2011 about the product. The company does offer this description of itself and the product on its Facebook page,

Drink Sciences is a start-up that’s developing a straw/stirrer that detects date rape drugs in drinks. We are focused on helping prevent Drug Facilitated Sexual Assault, a crime with growing incidence rates in the US and globally.

I wish them good luck with launching their product into the marketplace when, presumably, they’ll have a name for it.

Luminous bacteria sense pharmaceuticals and metals in wastewater

Scientists at the Helmholtz Association of German Research Centres have conceptualized a technique using luminescent bacterial proteins for sensing pharmaceuticals and metals in waste water. From the Helmholtz Association of German Research Centres June 12, 2013 press release,

While residual medications don’t belong in the water, trace metals from industrial process waters handled by the recycling industry are, in contrast, valuable resources. Scientists at the Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf (HZDR) have developed a simple color sensor principle which facilitates the easy detection of both materials as well as many other substances. This is the concept: If the analyzed sample shines red, then the water is ‘clean;’ if its color turns green, however, then it contains the substances the scientists wish to detect. The researchers recently published their concept in the scientific journal Sensors and Actuators B: Chemical (DOI: 10.1016/j.snb.2013.05.051).

Here’s the concept, from the press release,

The sensor principle is based on a red and a green fluorescent dye. If a substance to be detected is present in a water sample, then the sensor shines green; a red color, however, indicates that the substance is not present. What is the reason for the color difference? “The color molecules are located on a nanostructured surface consisting of bacterial proteins. The dyes are so close to one another that energy is transferred from the green to the red dye if these dyes are irradiated with light at a specific wavelength, for example, the light emitted by a laser. Then the sample shines red. This energy transfer, though, only occurs if the water sample is ‘clean.’ If, however, any foreign substances such as, for example, the pharmaceuticals or pollutants to be detected accumulate between the color molecules at specific binding sites, then the transfer is interrupted and only the green dyes shine,” explains Ulrike Weinert. Her doctoral dissertation revolves around the binding of color molecules on nano surfaces.

The network project (“AptaSens”) was subsidized by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). Nanostructured surfaces are an important part of the project. They are extracted from the envelope proteins of bacteria which are cultivated by the researchers in a lab. “The proteins form regular lattice structures at the nano level. They are ideally suited to evenly arrange functional groups and other molecules,” notes Weinert.

Another essential component of the sensor principle are the binding sites on the nano surface of the substances which are to be detected. That’s why so-called aptamers are used. These aptamers are short, single-stranded DNA oligonucleotides; the DNA segments can be designed in such a way that they are capable of specifically binding the most diverse substances such as the pharmaceuticals or the pollutants mentioned above. Dr. Beate Strehlitz from the Leipzig-based Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) has specialized in this field. Within the scope of the AptaSens project, her team developed such a receptor for the antibiotic kanamycin which is used, for example, for the treatment of such bacterial infections of the eye as conjunctivitis, or in veterinary medicine.

The next step will be testing, from the press release,

What remains to be done now is to combine the kanamycin receptor with the dyes to test the color sensor principle with a sample substance. “From there, it’s just a small step to the development of a complete color sensor,” notes Katrin Pollmann [Dr. Katrin Pollmann, Team Leader Biotechnology at the HZDR {Holtzman Centres}]. For this, the researchers need to integrate the individual components – which include bacterial proteins, dyes, and aptamers – into a sensor chip. They have actually conducted a number of experiments with suitable substrates such as, for example, glass or silicon dioxide. “The sensor chip could be as small as a thumbnail. It could be wetted on site with the water sample to be analyzed. This would also include a laser light source which activates the chip as well as a detector that measures the change in color,” adds Pollmann. The scientists are now applying for a follow-up project.

I’d love to get a little more information about which metals (gold nanoparticles? silver nanoparticles? zinc oxide nanoparticles? etc.) could be detected in the water. If the information is in the research team’s published paper, that is available only behind a paywall.  H/T to Nanowerk (June 12, 2013 news item) for alerting me to this research work.

Here’s a citation (the link was provided earlier in this post),

U. Weinert, K. Pollmann, J. Raff. “Fluorescence Resonance Energy Transfer by S-layer coupled fluorescence dyes”, in Sensors and Actuators B: Chemical (2013), DOI: 10.1016/j.snb.2013.05.051

For anyone who’s interested in more information about aptamers, there’s my Oct. 25, 2011 posting which featured an interview with Dr. Maria DeRosa about her work with them.

CeNSE (Central Nervous System of the Earth) and billions of tiny sensors from HP plus a memristor update

Mike Thacker’s Feb. 1, 2013 (?) post features an HP Labs video trumpeting what is described as their most progressive work, from the official HP Labs blog,

… HP Labs in Palo Alto, for example, which is using nanotechnology capabilities to create low-cost censors that act as a central nervous system for the earth. The technology can be used to closely monitor — and quickly respond to — changes in agriculture, food supply and architectural infrastructure around the world.

CeNSE (Central Nervous System of the Earth) sounds like something new, eh? Almost three years ago, Greg Lindsay wrote about CeNSE and its first customer, Shell Oil, in a Feb. 12, 2010 article for Fast Company (Note: Links have been removed),

Just days after Cisco signaled it will horn into IBM’s turf by rewiring an aging city in Massachusetts, Hewlett Packard announced this morning the first commercial application of its own holistic blueprint–the torturously acronymed “CeNSE” (short for Central Nervous System for the Earth). Much like IBM’s “Smarter Planet” campaign, HP proposes sticking billions of sensors on everything in sight and boiling down the resulting flood of data into insights for making the world a better, greener place. But what sets HP apart from its rivals is its determination to create a smarter planet almost entirely within house, from sensors of its own design and manufacture to servers to software to the consultants who will tie it all together. And its first customer could not be less green: Shell Oil.

The Shell deal also unintentionally explodes the myth that a smarter planet is necessarily a greener one. HP’s bleeding-edge accelerometers are being deployed for the least green thing you can think of: sucking every last drop of oil out of the ground. While absolutely necessary for the current trajectory of our way of life (and buying us more time to develop alternatives), it’s hard to argue that technology for more efficiently recovering fossil fuels is in any way sustainable. (Although Wacker [Jeff Wacker, the leader of services innovation at HP and the head of its efforts to commercialize CeNSE] gamely argues the same technology is needed for finding empty pockets suitable for carbon sequestration.) While corporate-sponsored smarter cities can, in fact, be greener ones, their charter is the same as it ever was: profit. [emphasis mine]

Lindsay’s article echoes some of what I noted in the context of the Carbon Management Canada (CMC) network (government- and industry-funded) in my Feb. 4, 2013 posting about ultra-sensitive nanosensors and attempts to reduce carbon emissions in the Alberta oil sands. While the industry may work to reduce emissions, its raison d’être is profit and that can lead to complex situations with conflicting agendas.

As for what these billions and billions of tiny sensors might do for us, it seems there might be alternatives to at least one of the capabilities claimed by HP Labs and its sensors, ‘sensing changes in architectural infrastructures’. My Jan. 3, 2013 post, Signal danger with smart paint, mentioned a much more modest effort,

An innovative low-cost smart paint that can detect microscopic faults in wind turbines, mines and bridges before structural damage occurs is being developed by researchers at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland. [emphasis mine]

The environmentally-friendly paint uses nanotechnology to detect movement in large structures, and could shape the future of safety monitoring.

I digress slightly. The reference to the ‘central nervous system of the earth’ and Stanley Williams’ presence in the video reminded me of the memristor and an announcement (mentioned in my April 19, 2012 posting) that HP Labs would be rolling out some memristor-enabled products in 2013. Sadly, later in the year I missed this announcement, from a July 9, 2012 posting by Chris Mellor for TheRegister.co.uk,

Previously he (Stanley Williams) has said that HP and fab partner Hynix would launch a memristor product in the summer of 2013. At the Kavli do [Kavli Foundation Roundtable, June 2012], Williams said: “In terms of commercialisation, we’ll have something technologically viable by the end of next year.”

But that doesn’t mean a commercial product launch, and Hynix’s concerns about memristor device effect on flash are relevant: “Our partner, Hynix, is a major producer of flash memory, and memristors will cannibalise its existing business by replacing some flash memory with a different technology. So the way we time the introduction of memristors turns out to be important. There’s a lot more money being spent on understanding and modeling the market than on any of the research,” said Williams. [emphasis mine]

We might see a memristor product by summer 2014 but it could be later, as Hynix balances memristor device revenues, starting from zero, cutting into flash revenues in the millions of dollars.

I think the reason innovation is often introduced by outsiders is that they have no vested interest in maintaining the status quo as per the situation with Hynix and HP Labs, i.e., not wanting to cannibalize a current and profitable product line by introducing something new and, one gathers, an improvement.

University of Toronto’s (Canada) smiley face tattoo/sensor

Researchers at the University of Toronto have created a medical sensor that can be applied to the skin like a temporary tattoo.

University of Toronto Scarborough student Vinci Hung helped create the smiley face sensor shown here in the box at upper right (photo by Ken Jones)

The Dec. 3, 2012 news item on ScienceDaily notes,

A medical sensor that attaches to the skin like a temporary tattoo could make it easier for doctors to detect metabolic problems in patients and for coaches to fine-tune athletes’ training routines. And the entire sensor comes in a thin, flexible package shaped like a smiley face.

“We wanted a design that could conceal the electrodes,” says Vinci Hung, a PhD candidate in the Department of Physical & Environmental Sciences at UTSC [University of Toronto Scarborough], who helped create the new sensor. “We also wanted to showcase the variety of designs that can be accomplished with this fabrication technique.”

The Dec. 3, 2012 University of Toronto news release by Kurt Kleiner, which originated the news item, provides details about how the sensor/tattoo is fabricated and how it functions on the skin,

The new tattoo-based solid-contact ion-selective electrode (ISE) is made using standard screen printing techniques and commercially available transfer tattoo paper, the same kind of paper that usually carries tattoos of Spiderman or Disney princesses. In the case of the smiley face sensor, the “eyes” function as the working and reference electrodes, and the “ears” are contacts to which a measurement device can connect.

The sensor Hung helped make can detect changes in the skin’s pH levels in response to metabolic stress from exertion. Similar devices, called ion-selective electrodes (ISEs), are already used by medical researchers and athletic trainers. They can give clues to underlying metabolic diseases such as Addison’s disease, or simply signal whether an athlete is fatigued or dehydrated during training. The devices are also useful in the cosmetics industry for monitoring skin secretions.

But existing devices can be bulky, or hard to keep adhered to sweating skin. The new tattoo-based sensor stayed in place during tests, and continued to work even when the people wearing them were exercising and sweating extensively. The tattoos were applied in a similar way to regular transfer tattoos, right down to using a paper towel soaked in warm water to remove the base paper.

To make the sensors, Hung and her colleagues used a standard screen printer to lay down consecutive layers of silver, carbon fibre-modified carbon and insulator inks, followed by electropolymerization of aniline to complete the sensing surface.

By using different sensing materials, the tattoos can also be modified to detect other components of sweat, such as sodium, potassium or magnesium, all of which are of potential interest to researchers in medicine and cosmetology.

You can find the reserchers’ article in the Royal Society’s Analyst journal,

Tattoo-based potentiometric ion-selective sensors for epidermal pH monitoring
Amay J. Bandodkar ,  Vinci W. S. Hung ,  Wenzhao Jia ,  Gabriela Valdés-Ramírez ,  Joshua R. Windmiller ,  Alexandra G. Martinez ,  Julian Ramírez ,  Garrett Chan ,  Kagan Kerman and Joseph Wang in Analyst, 2013,138, 123-128 DOI: 10.1039/C2AN36422K

The article is open access but you do need to register for a free account with the Royal Society’s RSC [ublishing platform.

Cloud project for London 2012 Olympics includes Umberto Eco?; University of Toronto researchers work on nano nose; Nano safety research centre in Scotland

Shades of the 19th century! One of the teams competing to build a 2012 Olympics tourist attraction for London’s east end has proposed digital clouds. According to the article (Digital cloud plan for city skies) by Jonathan Fildes, online here at BBC News,

The construction would include 120m- (400ft-) tall mesh towers and a series of interconnected plastic bubbles that can be used to display images and data.

The Cloud, as it is known, would also be used [as] an observation deck and park

The idea of displaying images and data on clouds isn’t entirely new,

… the prospect of illuminated messages on the slate of the heavens … most fascinated experts and layman. “Imagine the effect,” speculated the Electrical Review [Dec. 31, 1892], “if a million people saw in gigantic characters across the clouds such words as ‘BEWARE OF PROTECTION’ and “FREE TRADE LEADS TO H–L!”

(The passage is from Carolyn Marvin’s book, When old technologies were new.) I’m not sure what protection refers to but the reference to free trade still feels fresh.

I always find technology connections to the past quite interesting as similar ideas pop up independently from time to time and I’d be willing to bet the 2012 cloud team has no idea that displaying messages on clouds had been proposed as far back as the 1890s.

The current project has some interesting twists. The team is proposing to fund it with micro-donations from millions of people. From the BBC article,

“It’s really about people coming together to raise the Cloud,” Carlo Ratti, one of the architects behind the design from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) told BBC News.

“We can build our Cloud with £5m or £50m. The flexibility of the structural system will allow us to tune the size of the Cloud to the level of funding that is reached.”

The size of the structure will evolve depending on the number of contributions, he said.

The cloud will not consume power from the city’s grid.

“Many tall towers have preceded this, but our achievement is the high degree of transparency, the minimal use of material and the vast volume created by the spheres,” said professor Joerg Schleich, the structural engineer behind the towers.

Professor Schleich was responsible for the Olympic Stadium in Munich as well as numerous lightweight towers built to the same design as the Cloud.

The structure would also be used to harvest all the energy it produces according to Professor Ratti.

“It would be a zero power cloud,” he said.

The team in addition to designers, scientists, and engineers includes Umberto Eco, a philosopher, semiotician, novelist, medievalist, and literary critic.

Yes, they have a writer on the team for a truly interdisciplinary approach. Or not. Eco may have lent his name to the project and not been an active participant. Still, I’m much encouraged by Eco’s participation (regardless of the amount or type) in this project as I think writers have, for the most part, been fusty and slow to engage with the changes we’re all experiencing.

At the University of Toronto (U of T), researchers are working on a project that they hope will be of interest to NASA ([US] National Aeronautics and Space Administration). From the news item on Azonano,

Thankfully, there is no failure to launch at U of T’s new electron beam nanolithography facility where researchers are already developing smaller-than-tiny award-winning devices to improve disease diagnoses and enhance technology that impacts fields as varied as space exploration, the environment, health care and information and media technologies.

One of these novel nano-devices, being developed by PhD student Muhammad Alam, is an optical nose that is capable of detecting multiple gases. Alam hopes it will be used by NASA one day.

Alam is working on a hydrogen sensor which can be used to detect the gas. Hydrogen is used in many industries and its use is rising so there is great interest in finding ways to handle it more safely and effectively. As for NASA, sometimes those rockets don’t get launched because they detect a hydrogen leak that didn’t actually happen. The U of T ‘nose’ promises to be more reliable than the current sensors in use.

Scotland is hosting one of the first nanomaterials research centres in the UK. From the news item on Nanowerk,

Professor Anne Glover, Chief Scientific Adviser for Scotland officially launched the new centre today (Wednesday, November 11) at Edinburgh Napier’s Craighouse Campus.
She said: “Given the widespread use of nanomaterials in [a] variety of everyday products, it is essential for us to fully understand them and their potential impacts. This centre is one of the first in the UK to bring together nano-science research across human, environment, reproductive health and microbiology to ensure the safe and sustainable ongoing use of nanotechnology.”
Director of the Centre for Nano Safety, Professor Vicki Stone said: “Nanomaterials are used in a diverse range of products from medicines and water purifiers to make-up, food, paints, clothing and electronics. It is therefore essential that we fully understand their longterm impact. We are dedicated to understanding the ongoing health and environmental affects of their use and then helping shape future policy for their development. The launch of this new centre is a huge step forward in this important area of research.”

It’s hard to see these initiatives (I mentioned more in yesterday’s [Nov. 10, 2009] posting) in the UK and Europe and not contrast them harshly with the Canadian scene. There may be large scale public engagement, public awareness, safety initiatives, etc. for nanotechnology in Canada but nobody is giving out any information about it.