Tag Archives: Sweden

Smart windows need anti-aging treatments

I’ve long been interested in electrochromic windows and this is the first I’ve heard of a problem with limited lifespans. Here’s more from an Oct. 1, 2015 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

Electrochromic windows, so-called ‘smart windows’, share a well-known problem with rechargeable batteries – their limited lifespan. Researchers at Uppsala University [Sweden] have now worked out an entirely new way to rejuvenate smart windows which have started to show signs of age. The study, published in Nature Materials (“Eliminating degradation and uncovering ion-trapping dynamics in electrochromic WO3 thin films”), may open the way to other areas of application.

An Oct. 1, 2015 Uppsala University press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the new item, describes previous work on electrochromic windows to provide context for the current research,

The electrochromic smart windows are controlled electrically. This kind of window is the result of research carried out at Uppsala University. Commercial production has recently been started by the company ChromoGenics AB.

The electrochromic smart window is made up of a series of thin layers on top of each other. The most important of these are two layers of tungsten oxide and nickel oxide, both about a third of a micrometer thick. They are separated by an electrolyte layer. The window’s opacity to visible light and solar energy varies when an electrical current flows between the oxide layers.

“The principle is the same as for an electric battery. Here the tungsten-oxide is the cathode and the nickel-oxide the anode. Opacity depends on how much the ‘battery’ is charged,” says Rui-Tao Wen, a doctoral student who carried out the study as part of his thesis.

The lifespan of both electric batteries and electrochromic smart windows is a well-known problem. They need to work after being charged and discharged many times if they are to be really profitable.

In the study, the researchers show that an electrochromic tungsten oxide layer which has been charged and discharged many times and has started to lose its capacity can be restored to its former high capacity. This is achieved by running a weak electric current through it while it is in light mode. This takes about an hour. In this way, the electric charge which has ‘fastened’ in the material is removed and the tungsten oxide layer is like new again.

“This is a new way to rejuvenate smart windows so that they last much longer. And the same principle might perhaps be used for electric batteries,” says Claes-Göran Granqvist, senior professor at the Ångström Laboratory, Uppsala University and one of the authors of the study.

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

Eliminating degradation and uncovering ion-trapping dynamics in electrochromic WO3 thin films by Rui-Tao Wen, Claes G. Granqvist, & Gunnar A. Niklasson. Nature Materials 14, 996–1001 (2015) doi:10.1038/nmat4368 Published online 10 August 2015

This paper is behind a paywall.

Better neuroprostheses for brain diseases and mental illneses

I don’t often get news releases from Sweden but I do on occasion and, sometimes, they even come in their original Swedish versions. In this case, Lund University sent me an English language version about their latest work making brain implants (neural prostheses) safer and effective. From a Sept. 29, 2015 Lund University news release (also on EurekAlert),

Neurons thrive and grow in a new type of nanowire material developed by researchers in Nanophysics and Ophthalmology at Lund University in Sweden. In time, the results might improve both neural and retinal implants, and reduce the risk of them losing their effectiveness over time, which is currently a problem

By implanting electrodes in the brain tissue one can stimulate or capture signals from different areas of the brain. These types of brain implants, or neuro-prostheses as they are sometimes called, are used to treat Parkinson’s disease and other neurological diseases.

They are currently being tested in other areas, such as depression, severe cases of autism, obsessive-compulsive disorders and paralysis. Another research track is to determine whether retinal implants are able to replace light-sensitive cells that die in cases of Retinitis Pigmentosa and other eye diseases.

However, there are severe drawbacks associated with today’s implants. One problem is that the body interprets the implants as foreign objects, resulting in an encapsulation of the electrode, which in turn leads to loss of signal.

One of the researchers explains the approach adopted by the research team (from the news release),

“Our nanowire structure prevents the cells that usually encapsulate the electrodes – glial cells – from doing so”, says Christelle Prinz, researcher in Nanophysics at Lund University in Sweden, who developed this technique together with Maria Thereza Perez, a researcher in Ophthalmology.

“I was very pleasantly surprised by these results. In previous in-vitro experiments, the glial cells usually attach strongly to the electrodes”, she says.

To avoid this, the researchers have developed a small substrate where regions of super thin nanowires are combined with flat regions. While neurons grow and extend processes on the nanowires, the glial cells primarily occupy the flat regions in between.

“The different types of cells continue to interact. This is necessary for the neurons to survive because the glial cells provide them with important molecules.”

So far, tests have only been done with cultured cells (in vitro) but hopefully they will soon be able to continue with experiments in vivo.

The substrate is made from the semiconductor material gallium phosphide where each outgrowing nanowire has a diameter of only 80 nanometres (billionths of a metre).

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

Support of Neuronal Growth Over Glial Growth and Guidance of Optic Nerve Axons by Vertical Nanowire Arrays by Gaëlle Piret, Maria-Thereza Perez, and Christelle N. Prinz. ACS Appl. Mater. Interfaces, 2015, 7 (34), pp 18944–18948 DOI: 10.1021/acsami.5b03798 Publication Date (Web): August 11, 2015

Copyright © 2015 American Chemical Society

This paper appears to be open access as I was able to link to the PDF version.

Natural nanoparticles and perfluorinated compounds in soil

The claim in a Sept. 9, 2015 news item on Nanowerk is that ‘natural’ nanoparticles are being used to remove perfluorinated compounds (PFC) from soil,

Perfluorinated compounds (PFC) are a new type of pollutants found in contaminated soils from industrial sites, airports and other sites worldwide.

In Norway, The Environment Agency has published a plan to eliminate PFOS [perfluorooctanesulfonic acid or perfluorooctane sulfonate] from the environment by 2020. In other countries such as China and the United States, the levels are far higher, and several studies show accumulation of PFOS in fish and animals, however no concrete measures have been taken.

The Norwegian company, Fjordforsk AS, which specializes in nanosciences and environmental methods, has developed a method to remove PFOS from soil by binding them to natural minerals. This method can be used to extract PFOS from contaminated soil and prevent leakage of PFOS to the groundwater.

Electron microscopy images show that the minerals have the ability to bind PFOS on the surface of the natural nanoparticles. [emphasis mine] The proprietary method does not contaminate the treated grounds with chemicals or other parts from remediation process and uses only natural components.

Electron microscopy images and more detail can be found in the Nanowerk news item.

I can’t find the press release, which originated the news item but there is a little additional information about Fjoorkforsk’s remediation efforts on the company’s “Purification of perfluorinated compounds from soil samples” project page,

Project duration: 2014 –

Project leader: Manzetti S.

Collaborators: Prof Lutz Ahrens. Swedish Agricultural University. Prof David van der Spoel, Uppsala University.

Project description:

Perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) are emerging pollutants used in flame retardants on a large scale on airports and other sites of heavy industrial activity. Perfluroinated compounds are toxic and represent an ultra-persistent class of chemicals which can accumulate in animals and humans and have been found to remain in the body for over 5 years after uptake. Perfluorinated compounds can also affect the nerve-system and have recently been associated with high- priority pollutants to be discontinued and to be removed from the environment. Using non-toxic methods, this project develops an approach to sediment perfluorinated compounds from contaminated soil samples using nanoparticles, in order to remove the ecotoxic and ground-water contaminating potential of PFCs from afflicted sites and environments.

The only mineral that I know is used for soil remediation is nano zero-valent iron (nZVI). A very fast search for more information yielded a 2010 EMPA [Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology] report titled “Nano zero valent iron – THE solution for water and soil remediation? ” (32 pp. pdf) published by ObservatoryNANO.

As for the claim that the company is using ‘natural’ nanoparticles for their remediation efforts, it’s not clear what they mean by that. I suspect they’re using the term ‘natural’ to mean that engineered nanoparticles are being derived from a naturally occurring material, e.g. iron.

Sunscreen based on algae, reef fish mucus, and chitosan

The proposed sunscreen is all natural and would seem to avoid some of the environmental problems associated with other sunscreens (e.g., washing off into the ocean and polluting it). From a July 29, 2015 American Chemical Society (ACS) news release (also on EurekAlert), Note: Links have been removed,

For consumers searching for just the right sunblock this summer, the options can be overwhelming. But scientists are now turning to the natural sunscreen of algae — which is also found in fish slime — to make a novel kind of shield against the sun’s rays that could protect not only people, but also textiles and outdoor materials. …

Existing sunblock lotions typically work by either absorbing ultraviolet rays or physically blocking them. A variety of synthetic and natural compounds can accomplish this. But most commercial options have limited efficiency, pose risks to the environment and human health or are not stable. To address these shortcomings, Vincent Bulone, Susana C. M. Fernandes and colleagues looked to nature for inspiration.

The researchers used algae’s natural sunscreen molecules, which can also be found in reef fish mucus and microorganisms, and combined them with chitosan, a biopolymer from crustacean shells. Testing showed their materials were biocompatible, stood up well in heat and light, and absorbed both ultraviolet A and ultraviolet B radiation with high efficiency.

The authors acknowledge funding from the European Commission Marie Curie Intra-European Fellowship, the KTH Advanced Carbohydrate Materials Consortium (CarboMat), the Swedish Research Council for Environment, Agricultural Sciences and Spatial Planning (FORMAS) and the Basque Government Department of Education.

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

Exploiting Mycosporines as Natural Molecular Sunscreens for the Fabrication of UV-Absorbing Green Material by Susana C. M. Fernandes, Ana Alonso-Varona, Teodoro Palomares, Verónica Zubillaga, Jalel Labidi, and Vincent Bulone.
ACS Appl. Mater. Interfaces, Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/acsami.5b04064 Publication Date (Web): July 13, 2015
Copyright © 2015 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Replacing metal with nanocellulose paper

The quest to find uses for nanocellulose materials has taken a step forward with some work coming from the University of Maryland (US). From a July 24, 2015 news item on Nanowerk,

Researchers at the University of Maryland recently discovered that paper made of cellulose fibers is tougher and stronger the smaller the fibers get … . For a long time, engineers have sought a material that is both strong (resistant to non-recoverable deformation) and tough (tolerant of damage).

“Strength and toughness are often exclusive to each other,” said Teng Li, associate professor of mechanical engineering at UMD. “For example, a stronger material tends to be brittle, like cast iron or diamond.”

A July 23, 2015 University of Maryland news release, which originated the news item, provides details about the thinking which buttresses this research along with some details about the research itself,

The UMD team pursued the development of a strong and tough material by exploring the mechanical properties of cellulose, the most abundant renewable bio-resource on Earth. Researchers made papers with several sizes of cellulose fibers – all too small for the eye to see – ranging in size from about 30 micrometers to 10 nanometers. The paper made of 10-nanometer-thick fibers was 40 times tougher and 130 times stronger than regular notebook paper, which is made of cellulose fibers a thousand times larger.

“These findings could lead to a new class of high performance engineering materials that are both strong and tough, a Holy Grail in materials design,” said Li.

High performance yet lightweight cellulose-based materials might one day replace conventional structural materials (i.e. metals) in applications where weight is important. This could lead, for example, to more energy efficient and “green” vehicles. In addition, team members say, transparent cellulose nanopaper may become feasible as a functional substrate in flexible electronics, resulting in paper electronics, printable solar cells and flexible displays that could radically change many aspects of daily life.

Cellulose fibers can easily form many hydrogen bonds. Once broken, the hydrogen bonds can reform on their own—giving the material a ‘self-healing’ quality. The UMD discovered that the smaller the cellulose fibers, the more hydrogen bonds per square area. This means paper made of very small fibers can both hold together better and re-form more quickly, which is the key for cellulose nanopaper to be both strong and tough.

“It is helpful to know why cellulose nanopaper is both strong and tough, especially when the underlying reason is also applicable to many other materials,” said Liangbing Hu, assistant professor of materials science at UMD.

To confirm, the researchers tried a similar experiment using carbon nanotubes that were similar in size to the cellulose fibers. The carbon nanotubes had much weaker bonds holding them together, so under tension they did not hold together as well. Paper made of carbon nanotubes is weak, though individually nanotubes are arguably the strongest material ever made.

One possible future direction for the research is the improvement of the mechanical performance of carbon nanotube paper.

“Paper made of a network of carbon nanotubes is much weaker than expected,” said Li. “Indeed, it has been a grand challenge to translate the superb properties of carbon nanotubes at nanoscale to macroscale. Our research findings shed light on a viable approach to addressing this challenge and achieving carbon nanotube paper that is both strong and tough.”

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

Anomalous scaling law of strength and toughness of cellulose nanopaper by Hongli Zhu, Shuze Zhu, Zheng Jia, Sepideh Parvinian, Yuanyuan Li, Oeyvind Vaaland, Liangbing Hu, and Teng Li. PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) July 21, 2015 vol. 112 no. 29 doi: 10.1073/pnas.1502870112

This paper is behind a paywall.

There is a lot of research on applications for nanocellulose, everywhere it seems, except Canada, which at one time was a leader in the business of producing cellulose nanocrystals (CNC).

Here’s a sampling of some of my most recent posts on nanocellulose,

Nanocellulose as a biosensor (July 28, 2015)

Microscopy, Paper and Fibre Research Institute (Norway), and nanocellulose (July 8, 2015)

Nanocellulose markets report released (June 5, 2015; US market research)

New US platform for nanocellulose and occupational health and safety research (June 1, 2015; Note: As you find new applications, you need to concern yourself with occupational health and safety.)

‘Green’, flexible electronics with nanocellulose materials (May 26, 2015; research from China)

Treating municipal wastewater and dirty industry byproducts with nanocellulose-based filters (Dec. 23, 2014; research from Sweden)

Nanocellulose and an intensity of structural colour (June 16, 2014; research about replacing toxic pigments with structural colour from the UK)

I ask again, where are the Canadians? If anybody has an answer, please let me know.

Northwestern University’s (US) International Institute for Nanotechnology (IIN) rakes in some cash

Within less than a month Northwestern University’s International Institute for Nanotechnology (IIN) has been granted awarded two grants by the US Department of Defense.

4D printing

The first grant, for 4D printing, was announced in a June 11, 2015 Northwestern news release by Megan Fellman (Note: A link has been removed),

Northwestern University’s International Institute for Nanotechnology (IIN) has received a five-year, $8.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense’s competitive Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative (MURI) program to develop a “4-dimensional printer” — the next generation of printing technology for the scientific world.

Once developed, the 4-D printer, operating on the nanoscale, will be used to construct new devices for research in chemistry, materials sciences and U.S. defense-related areas that could lead to new chemical and biological sensors, catalysts, microchip designs and materials designed to respond to specific materials or signals.

“This research promises to bring transformative advancement to the development of biosensors, adaptive optics, artificially engineered tissues and more by utilizing nanotechnology,” said IIN director and chemist Chad A. Mirkin, who is leading the multi-institution project. Mirkin is the George B. Rathmann Professor of Chemistry in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences.

The award, issued by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, supports a team of experts from Northwestern, the University of Miami, the University of California, San Diego, and the University of Maryland.

In science, “printing” encodes information at specific locations on a material’s surface, similar to how we print words on paper with ink. The 4-dimensional printer will consist of millions of tiny elastomeric “pens” that can be used individually and independently to create nanometer-size features composed of hard or soft materials.

The information encoded can be in the form of materials with a defined set of chemical and physical properties. The printing speed and resolution determine the amount and complexity of the information that can be encoded.

Progress in fields ranging from biology to chemical sensing to computing currently are limited by the lack of low-cost equipment that can perform high-resolution printing and 3-dimensional patterning on hard materials (e.g., metals and semiconductors) and soft materials (e.g., organic and biological materials) at nanometer resolution (approximately 1,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair).

“Ultimately, the 4-D printer will provide a foundation for a new generation of tools to develop novel architectures, wherein the hard materials that form the functional components of electronics can be merged with biological or soft materials,” said Milan Mrksich, a co-principal investigator on the grant.

Mrksich is the Henry Wade Rogers Professor of Biomedical Engineering, Chemistry and Cell and Molecular Biology, with appointments in the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, Weinberg and Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

A July 10, 2015 article about the ‘4D printer’ grant  by Madeline Fox for the Daily Northwestern features a description of 4D printing from Milan Mrksich, a co-principal investigator on the grant,

Milan Mrksich, one of the project’s five senior participants, said that while most people are familiar with the three dimensions of length, width and depth, there are often misconceptions about the fourth property of a four-dimensional object. Mrksich used Legos as an analogy to describe 4D printing technology.

“If you take Lego blocks, you can basically build any structure you want by controlling which Lego is connected to which Lego and controlling all their dimensions in space,” Mrksich said. “Within an object made up of nanoparticles, we’re controlling the placement — as we use a printer to control the placement of every particle, our fourth dimension lets us choose which nanoparticle with which property would be at each position.”

Thank you Dr. Mrksich and Ms. Fox for that helpful analogy.

Designing advanced bioprogrammable nanomaterials

The second grant, announced in a July 6, 2015 Northwestern news release by Megan Fellman, is apparently the only one of its kind in the US (Note: A link has been removed),

Northwestern University’s International Institute for Nanotechnology (IIN) has been awarded a U.S. Air Force Center of Excellence grant to design advanced bioprogrammable nanomaterials for solutions to challenging problems in the areas of energy, the environment, security and defense, as well as for developing ways to monitor and mitigate human stress.

The five-year, $9.8 million grant establishes the Center of Excellence for Advanced Bioprogrammable Nanomaterials (C-ABN), the only one of its kind in the country. After the initial five years, the grant potentially could be renewed for an additional five years.

“Northwestern University was chosen to lead this Center of Excellence because of its investment in infrastructure development, including new facilities and instrumentation; its recruitment of high-caliber faculty members and students; and its track record in bio-nanotechnology and cognitive sciences,” said Timothy Bunning, chief scientist at the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) Materials and Manufacturing Directorate.

Led by IIN director Chad A. Mirkin, C-ABN will support collaborative, discovery-based research projects aimed at developing bioprogrammable nanomaterials that will meet both military and civilian needs and facilitate the efficient transition of these new technologies from the laboratory to marketplace.

Bioprogrammable nanomaterials are structures that typically contain a biomolecular component, such as nucleic acids or proteins, which give the materials a variety of novel capabilities. [emphasis mine] Nanomaterials can be designed to assemble into large 3-D structures, to interface with biological structures inside cells or tissues, or to interface with existing macroscale devices, for example. These new bioprogrammable nanomaterials and the fundamental knowledge gained through their development will ultimately lead to the creation of wearable, portable and/or human-interactive devices with extraordinary capabilities that will significantly impact both civilian and Air Force needs.

In one research area, scientists will work to understand the molecular underpinnings of vulnerability and resilience to stress. They will use bioprogrammable nanomaterials to develop ultrasensitive sensors capable of detecting and quantifying biomarkers for human stress in biological fluids (e.g., saliva, perspiration or blood), providing means to easily monitor the soldier during times of extreme stress. Ultimately, these bioprogrammable materials may lead to methods to increase human cellular resilience to the effects of stress and/or to correct genetic mutations that decrease cellular resilience of susceptible individuals.

Other research projects, encompassing a wide variety of nanotechnology-enabled goals, include:

Developing hybrid wearable energy-storage devices;
Developing devices to identify chemical and biological targets in a field environment;
Developing flexible bio-electronic circuits;
Designing a new class of flat optics; and
Advancing understanding of design rules between 2-D and 3-D architectures.

The analysis of these nanostructures also will extend fundamental knowledge in the fields of materials science and engineering, human performance, chemistry, biology and physics.

The center will be housed under the IIN, providing researchers with access to IIN’s strong entrepreneurial community and its close ties with Northwestern’s renowned Kellogg School of Management.

This second news release provides an interesting contrast to a recent news release from Sweden’s Karolinska Intitute where the writer was careful to note that the enzymes and organic electronic ion pumps were not living as noted in my June 26, 2015 posting. It seems nucleic acids (as in RNA and DNA) can be mentioned without a proviso in the US. as there seems to be little worry about anti-GMO (genetically modified organisms) and similar backlashes affecting biotechnology research.

Researchers at Karolinska Institute (Sweden) build an artificial neuron

Unlike my post earlier today (June 26, 2015) about BrainChip, this is not about neuromorphic engineering (artificial brain), although I imagine this new research from the Karolinska Institute (Institutet) will be of some interest to that community. This research was done in the interest of developing* therapeutic interventions for brain diseases. One aspect of this news item/press release I find particularly interesting is the insistence that “no living parts” were used to create the artificial neuron,

A June 24, 2015 news item on ScienceDaily describes what the artificial neuron can do,

Scientists have managed to build a fully functional neuron by using organic bioelectronics. This artificial neuron contain [sic] no ‘living’ parts, but is capable of mimicking the function of a human nerve cell and communicate in the same way as our own neurons do. [emphasis mine]

A June 24, 2015 Karolinska Institute press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes how neurons communicate in the brain, standard techniques for stimulating neuronal cells, and the scientists’ work on a technique to improve stimulation,

Neurons are isolated from each other and communicate with the help of chemical signals, commonly called neurotransmitters or signal substances. Inside a neuron, these chemical signals are converted to an electrical action potential, which travels along the axon of the neuron until it reaches the end. Here at the synapse, the electrical signal is converted to the release of chemical signals, which via diffusion can relay the signal to the next nerve cell.

To date, the primary technique for neuronal stimulation in human cells is based on electrical stimulation. However, scientists at the Swedish Medical Nanoscience Centre (SMNC) at Karolinska Institutet in collaboration with collegues at Linköping University, have now created an organic bioelectronic device that is capable of receiving chemical signals, which it can then relay to human cells.

“Our artificial neuron is made of conductive polymers and it functions like a human neuron,” says lead investigator Agneta Richter-Dahlfors, professor of cellular microbiology. “The sensing component of the artificial neuron senses a change in chemical signals in one dish, and translates this into an electrical signal. This electrical signal is next translated into the release of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine in a second dish, whose effect on living human cells can be monitored.”

The research team hope that their innovation, presented in the journal Biosensors & Bioelectronics, will improve treatments for neurologial disorders which currently rely on traditional electrical stimulation. The new technique makes it possible to stimulate neurons based on specific chemical signals received from different parts of the body. In the future, this may help physicians to bypass damaged nerve cells and restore neural function.

“Next, we would like to miniaturize this device to enable implantation into the human body,” says Agneta Richer-Dahlfors. “We foresee that in the future, by adding the concept of wireless communication, the biosensor could be placed in one part of the body, and trigger release of neurotransmitters at distant locations. Using such auto-regulated sensing and delivery, or possibly a remote control, new and exciting opportunities for future research and treatment of neurological disorders can be envisaged.”

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

An organic electronic biomimetic neuron enables auto-regulated neuromodulation by Daniel T. Simon, Karin C. Larsson, David Nilsson, Gustav Burström, b, Dagmar Galter, Magnus Berggren, and Agneta Richter-Dahlfors. Biosensors and Bioelectronics Volume 71, 15 September 2015, Pages 359–364         doi:10.1016/j.bios.2015.04.058

This paper is behind a paywall.

As to anyone (other than myself) who may be curious about exactly what they used (other than “living parts”) to create an artificial neuron, there’s the paper’s abstract,

Current therapies for neurological disorders are based on traditional medication and electric stimulation. Here, we present an organic electronic biomimetic neuron, with the capacity to precisely intervene with the underlying malfunctioning signalling pathway using endogenous substances. The fundamental function of neurons, defined as chemical-to-electrical-to-chemical signal transduction, is achieved by connecting enzyme-based amperometric biosensors and organic electronic ion pumps. Selective biosensors transduce chemical signals into an electric current, which regulates electrophoretic delivery of chemical substances without necessitating liquid flow. Biosensors detected neurotransmitters in physiologically relevant ranges of 5–80 µM, showing linear response above 20 µm with approx. 0.1 nA/µM slope. When exceeding defined threshold concentrations, biosensor output signals, connected via custom hardware/software, activated local or distant neurotransmitter delivery from the organic electronic ion pump. Changes of 20 µM glutamate or acetylcholine triggered diffusive delivery of acetylcholine, which activated cells via receptor-mediated signalling. This was observed in real-time by single-cell ratiometric Ca2+ imaging. The results demonstrate the potential of the organic electronic biomimetic neuron in therapies involving long-range neuronal signalling by mimicking the function of projection neurons. Alternatively, conversion of glutamate-induced descending neuromuscular signals into acetylcholine-mediated muscular activation signals may be obtained, applicable for bridging injured sites and active prosthetics.

While it’s true neither are “living parts,” I believe both enzymes and organic electronic ion pumps can be found in biological organisms. The insistence on ‘nonliving’ in the press release suggests that scientists in Europe, if nowhere else, are still quite concerned about any hint that they are working on genetically modified organisms (GMO). It’s ironic when you consider that people blithely use enzyme-based cleaning and beauty products but one can appreciate the* scientists’ caution.

* ‘develop’ changed to ‘developing’ and ‘the’ added on July 3, 2015.

Tiny, electrically conductive 3D-printed chair made from cellulose

Sweden’s Chalmers University of Technology researchers have just announced that they’ve printed a very small 3D chair with electrical properties using cellulose nanomaterials. From a June 17, 2015 news item on Nanowerk,

A group of researchers at Chalmers University of Technology have managed to print and dry three-dimensional objects made entirely by cellulose for the first time with the help of a 3D-bioprinter. They also added carbon nanotubes to create electrically conductive material. The effect is that cellulose and other raw material based on wood will be able to compete with fossil-based plastics and metals in the on-going additive manufacturing revolution, which started with the introduction of the 3D-printer.

Here’s the 3D-printed chair,

The tiny chair made of cellulose is a demonstrational object, printed using the 3D bioprinter at Chalmers University of Technology. Photo: Peter Widing

The tiny chair made of cellulose is a demonstrational object, printed using the 3D bioprinter at Chalmers University of Technology. Photo: Peter Widing

A June 17, 2015 Chalmers University of Technology press release (also on EurekAlert*), which originated the news item, describes the problem with printing from cellulose nanomaterials and how it was solved,

The difficulty using cellulose in additive manufacturing is that cellulose does not melt when heated. Therefore, the 3D printers and processes designed for printing plastics and metals cannot be used for materials like cellulose. The Chalmers researchers solved this problem by mixing cellulose nanofibrils in a hydrogel consisting of 95-99 percent water. The gel could then in turn be dispensed with high fidelity into the researchers’ 3D bioprinter, which was earlier used to produce scaffolds for growing cells, where the end application is patient-specific implants.

The next challenge was to dry the printed gel-like objects without them losing their three-dimensional shape.

“The drying process is critical,” Paul Gatenholm explains. “We have developed a process in which we freeze the objects and remove the water by different means as to control the shape of the dry objects. It is also possible to let the structure collapse in one direction, creating thin films.”

Furthermore, the cellulose gel was mixed with carbon nanotubes to create electrically conductive ink after drying. Carbon nanotubes conduct electricity, and another project at Wallenberg Wood Science Center aims at developing carbon nanotubes using wood.

Using the two gels together, one conductive and one non-conductive, and controlling the drying process, the researchers produced three-dimensional circuits, where the resolution increased significantly upon drying.

The two gels together provide a basis for the possible development of a wide range of products made by cellulose with in-built electric currents.

“Potential applications range from sensors integrated with packaging, to textiles that convert body heat to electricity, and wound dressings that can communicate with healthcare workers,” says Paul Gatenholm. “Our research group now moves on with the next challenge, to use all wood biopolymers, besides cellulose.”

The research findings are presented this week at the conference New Materials From Trees that takes place in Stockholm, Sweden, June 15-17 [2015].

The research team members are Ida Henriksson, Cristina de la Pena, Karl Håkansson, Volodymyr Kuzmenko and Paul Gatenholm at Chalmers University of Technology.

This research reminds me of another effort, a computer chip fashioned of cellulose nanofibrils (CNF) from the University of Wisconsin-Madison (mentioned in my May 27, 2015 post).

* EurekAlert link added June 18, 2015.

Construction and nanotechnology research in Scandinavia

I keep hearing about the possibilities for better (less polluting, more energy efficient, etc.) building construction materials but there never seems to be much progress.  A June 15, 2015 news item on Nanowerk, which suggests some serious efforts are being made in Scandinavia, may help to explain the delay,

It isn’t cars and vehicle traffic that produce the greatest volumes of climate gas emissions – it’s our own homes. But new research will soon be putting an end to all that!

The building sector is currently responsible for 40% of global energy use and climate gas emissions. This is an under-communicated fact in a world where vehicle traffic and exhaust emissions get far more attention.

In the future, however, we will start to see construction materials and high-tech systems integrated into building shells that are specifically designed to remedy this situation. Such systems will be intelligent and multifunctional. They will consume less energy and generate lower levels of harmful climate gas emissions.

With this objective in mind, researchers at SINTEF are currently testing microscopic nanoparticles as insulation materials, applying voltages to window glass and facades as a means of saving energy, and developing solar cells that prevent the accumulation of snow and ice.

Research Director Susie Jahren and Research Manager Petra Rüther are heading SINTEF’s strategic efforts in the field of future construction materials. They say that although there are major commercial opportunities available in the development of green and low carbon building technologies, the construction industry is somewhat bound by tradition and unable to pay for research into future technology development. [emphasis mine]

A June 15, 2015 SINTEF (Scandinavia’s largest independent research organisation) news release on the Alpha Galileo website, which originated the news item, provides an overview of the research being conducted into nanotechnology-enabled construction materials (Note: I have added some heads and ruthlessly trimmed from the text),


SINTEF researcher Bente Gilbu Tilset is sitting in her office in Forskningsveien 1 in Oslo [Norway]. She and her colleagues are looking into the manufacture of super-insulation materials made up of microscopic nanospheres.

“Our aim is to create a low thermal conductivity construction material “, says Tilset. “When gas molecules collide, energy is transferred between them. If the pores in a given material are small enough, for example less than 100 nanometres in diameter, a molecule will collide more often with the pore walls than with other gas molecules. This will effectively reduce the thermal conductivity of the gas. So, the smaller the pores, the lower the conductivity of the gas”, she says.

[Solar cells]

As part of the project “Bygningsintegrerte solceller for Norge” (Building Integrated Photovoltaics, BIPV Norway), researchers from SINTEF, NTNU, the IFE [IFE Group, privately owned company, located in Sweden] and Teknova [company created by the Nordic Institute for Studies in Innovation {NIFU}, located in Norway], are planning to look into how we can utilise solar cells as integral housing construction components, and how they can be adapted to Norwegian daylight and climatic conditions.

One of the challenges is to develop a solar cell which prevents the accumulation of snow and ice. The cells must be robust enough to withstand harsh wind and weather conditions and have lifetimes that enable them to function as electricity generators.


Today, we spend 90 per cent of our time indoors. This is as much as three times more than in the 1950s. We are also letting less daylight into our buildings as a result of energy considerations and construction engineering requirements. Research shows that daylight is very important to our health, well-being and biological rhythms. It also promotes productivity and learning. So the question is – is it possible to save energy and get the benefits of greater exposure to daylight?

Technologies involving thermochromic, photochromic and electrochromic pigments can help us to control how sunlight enters our buildings, all according to our requirements for daylight and warmth from the sun.

Self-healing concrete

Every year, between 40 and 120 million Euros are spent in Europe on the maintenance of bridges, tunnels and construction walls. These time-consuming and costly activities have to be reduced, and the project CAPDESIGN is aiming to make a contribution in this field.

The objective of the project is to produce concrete that can be ‘restored’ after being exposed to loads and stresses by means of self-healing agents that prevent the formation of cracks. The method involves mixing small capsules into the wet concrete before it hardens. These remain in the matrix until loads or other factors threaten to crack it. The capsules then burst and the self-healing agents are released to repair the structure.

At SINTEF, researchers are working with the material that makes up the capsule shells. The shell has to be able to protect the self-healing agent in the capsules for an extended period and then, under the right conditions, break down and release the agents in response to the formation of cracks caused by temperature, pH, or a load or stress resulting from an impact or shaking. At the same time, the capsules must not impair the ductility or the mechanical properties of the newly-mixed concrete.

You’ll notice most of the research seems to be taking place in Norway. I suspect that is due to the story having come from a joint Norwegian Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU)/SINTEF, website, Gemini.no/en. Anyone wishing to test their Norwegian readings skills need only omit ‘/en’ from the URL.

Electronic organic micropump for direct drug delivery to the brain

I can understand the appeal but have some questions about this micropump in the brain concept. First, here’s more about the research from an April 16, 2015 news item on Nanowerk,

Many potentially efficient drugs have been created to treat neurological disorders, but they cannot be used in practice. Typically, for a condition such as epilepsy, it is essential to act at exactly the right time and place in the brain. For this reason, the team of researchers led by Christophe Bernard at Inserm Unit 1106, “Institute of Systems Neuroscience” (INS), with the help of scientists at the École des Mines de Saint-Étienne and Linköping University (Sweden) have developed an organic electronic micropump which, when combined with an anticonvulsant drug, enables localised inhibition of epileptic seizure in brain tissue in vitro.

An April 16, 2015 INSERM (Institut national de la santé et de la recherche médicale) press release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, goes on to describe the problem the researchers are attempting to solve and their solution to it,

Drugs constitute the most widely used approach for treating brain disorders. However, many promising drugs failed during clinical testing for several reasons:

  • they are diluted in potentially toxic solutions,
  • they may themselves be toxic when they reach organs to which they were not initially directed,
  • the blood-brain barrier, which separates the brain from the blood circulation, prevents most drugs from reaching their targets in the brain,
  • drugs that succeed in penetrating the brain will act in a non-specific manner, i.e. on healthy regions of the brain, altering their functions.

Epilepsy is a typical example of a condition for which many drugs could not be commercialised because of their harmful effects, when they might have been effective for treating patients resistant to conventional treatments [1].

During an epileptic seizure, the nerve cells in a specific area of the brain are suddenly activated in an excessive manner. How can this phenomenon be controlled without affecting healthy brain regions? To answer this question, Christophe Bernard’s team, in collaboration with a team led by George Malliaras at the Georges Charpak-Provence Campus of the École des Mines of Saint-Étienne and Swedish scientists led by Magnus Berggren from Linköping University, have developed a biocompatible micropump that makes it possible to deliver therapeutic substances directly to the relevant areas of the brain.

The micropump (20 times thinner than a hair) is composed of a membrane known as “cation exchange,” i.e., it has negative ions attached to its surface. It thus attracts small positively charged molecules, whether these are ions or drugs. When an electrical current is applied to it, the flow of electrons generated projects the molecules of interest toward the target area.

To enable validation of this new technique, the researchers reproduced the hyperexcitability of epileptic neurons in mouse brains in vitro. They then injected GABA, a compound naturally produced in the brain and that inhibits neurons, into this hyperactive region using the micropump. The scientists then observed that the compound not only stopped this abnormal activity in the target region, but, most importantly, did not interfere with the functioning of the neighbouring regions.

This technology may thus resolve all the above-mentioned problems, by allowing very localised action, directly in the brain and without peripheral toxicity.

“By combining electrodes, such as those used to treat Parkinson’s disease, with this micropump, it may be possible to use this technology to treat patients with epilepsy who are resistant to conventional treatments, and those for whom the side-effects are too great,” explains Christophe Bernard, Inserm Research Director.

Based on these initial results, the researchers are now working to move on to an in vivo animal model and the possibility of combining this high-technology system with the microchip they previously developed in 2013. The device could be embedded and autonomous. The chip would be used to detect the imminent occurrence of a seizure, in order to activate the pump to inject the drug at just the right moment. It may therefore be possible to control brain activity where and when it is needed.

In addition to epilepsy, this state-of-the-art technology, combined with existing drugs, offers new opportunities for many brain diseases that remain difficult to treat at this time.


[1] Epilepsy in brief

This disease, which affects nearly 50 million people in the world, is the most common neurological disorder after migraine.

The neuronal dysfunctions associated with epilepsy lead to attacks with variable symptoms, from loss of consciousness to disorders of movement, sensation or mood.

Despite advances in medicine, 30% of those affected are resistant to all treatments.

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

Controlling Epileptiform Activity with Organic Electronic Ion Pumps by Adam Williamson, Jonathan Rivnay, Loïg Kergoat, Amanda Jonsson, Sahika Inal, Ilke Uguz, Marc Ferro, Anton Ivanov, Theresia Arbring-Sjöström, Daniel T. Simon, Magnus Berggren, George G. Malliaras, and Christophe Bernardi. Advanced Materials First published: 11 April 2015Full publication history DOI: 10.1002/adma.201500482

This paper is behind a paywall.

Finally, my questions. How does the pump get refilled once the drugs are used up? Do you get a warning when the drug supply is almost nil? How does that warning work? Does implanting the pump require brain surgery or is there a less intrusive fashion of placing this pump exactly where you want it to be? Once it’s been implanted, how do you find a pump  20 times thinner than a human hair?

For some reason this micropump brought back memories of working in high tech environments where developers would come up with all kinds of nifty ideas but put absolutely no thought into how these ideas might actually work once human human beings got their hands on the product. In any event, the micropump seems exciting and I hope researchers work out the kinks, implementationwise, before they’re implanted.