Tag Archives: Sweden

A new nanoparticle—layered* like an onion

The new nanoparticle comes courtesy of an international collaboration (US, China, Sweden, and Russia. A Nov. 10, 2015 University of Buffalo news release (also on EurekAlert) by Charlotte Hu describes the particle and its properties,

A new, onion-like nanoparticle could open new frontiers in biomaging, solar energy harvesting and light-based security techniques.

The particle’s innovation lies in its layers: a coating of organic dye, a neodymium-containing shell, and a core that incorporates ytterbium and thulium. Together, these strata convert invisible near-infrared light to higher energy blue and UV light with record-high efficiency, a trick that could improve the performance of technologies ranging from deep-tissue imaging and light-induced therapy to security inks used for printing money.

Here’s an artist’s representation of the new nanoparticle,

An artist’s rendering shows the layers of a new, onion-like nanoparticle whose specially crafted layers enable it to efficiently convert invisible near-infrared light to higher energy blue and UV light. Credit: Kaiheng Wei Courtesy: University of Buffalo

An artist’s rendering shows the layers of a new, onion-like nanoparticle whose specially crafted layers enable it to efficiently convert invisible near-infrared light to higher energy blue and UV light. Credit: Kaiheng Wei Courtesy: University of Buffalo

The news release goes on to describe technology in more detail,

When it comes to bioimaging, near-infrared light could be used to activate the light-emitting nanoparticles deep inside the body, providing high-contrast images of areas of interest. In the realm of security, nanoparticle-infused inks could be incorporated into currency designs; such ink would be invisible to the naked eye, but glow blue when hit by a low-energy laser pulse — a trait very difficult for counterfeiters to reproduce.

“It opens up multiple possibilities for the future,” says Tymish Ohulchanskyy, deputy director of photomedicine and research associate professor at the Institute for Lasers, Photonics, and Biophotonics (ILPB) at the University at Buffalo.

“By creating special layers that help transfer energy efficiently from the surface of the particle to the core, which emits blue and UV light, our design helps overcome some of the long-standing obstacles that previous technologies faced,” says Guanying Chen, professor of chemistry at Harbin Institute of Technology [China] and ILPB research associate professor.

“Our particle is about 100 times more efficient at ‘upconverting’ light than similar nanoparticles created in the past, making it much more practical,” says Jossana Damasco, a UB chemistry PhD student who played a key role in the project.

The research was published online in Nano Letters on Oct. 21 and led by the Institute for Lasers, Photonics, and Biophotonics at UB, and the Harbin Institute of Technology in China, with contributions from the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden; Tomsk State University in Russia; and the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

The study’s senior author was Paras Prasad, ILPB executive director and SUNY [State University of New York] Distinguished Professor in chemistry, physics, medicine and electrical engineering at UB.

Peeling back the layers

Converting low-energy light to light of higher energies isn’t easy to do. The process involves capturing two or more tiny packets of light called “photons” from a low-energy light source, and combining their energy to form a single, higher-energy photon.

The onionesque nanoparticle performs this task beautifully. Each of its three layers fulfills a unique function:

  • The outermost layer is a coating of organic dye. This dye is adept at absorbing photons from low-energy near-infrared light sources. It acts as an “antenna” for the nanoparticle, harvesting light and transferring energy inside, Ohulchanskyy says.
  • The next layer is a neodymium-containing shell. This layer acts as a bridge, transferring energy from the dye to the particle’s light-emitting core.
  • Inside the light-emitting core, ytterbium and thulium ions work in concert. The ytterbium ions draw energy into the core and pass the energy on to the thulium ions, which have special properties that enable them to absorb the energy of three, four or five photons at once, and then emit a single higher-energy photon of blue and UV light.

So why not just use the core? Why add the dye and neodymium layer at all?

As Ohulchanskyy and Chen explain, the core itself is inefficient in absorbing photons from the outside world. That’s where the dye comes in.

Once you add the dye, the neodymium-containing layer is necessary for transferring energy efficiently from dye to core. Ohulchanskyy uses the analogy of a staircase to explain why this is: When molecules or ions in a material absorb a photon, they enter an “excited” state from which they can transfer energy to other molecules or ions. The most efficient transfer occurs between molecules or ions whose excited states require a similar amount of energy to obtain, but the dye and ytterbium ions have excited states with very different energies. So the team added neodymium — whose excited state is in between that of the dye and thulium’s — to act as a bridge between the two, creating a “staircase” for the energy to travel down to reach emitting thulium ions.

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

Energy-Cascaded Upconversion in an Organic Dye-Sensitized Core/Shell Fluoride Nanocrystal by Guanying Chen, Jossana Damasco, Hailong Qiu, Wei Shao, Tymish Y. Ohulchanskyy, Rashid R. Valiev, Xiang Wu, Gang Han, Yan Wang, Chunhui Yang, Hans Ågren, and Paras N. Prasad. Nano Lett., 2015, 15 (11), pp 7400–7407 DOI: 10.1021/acs.nanolett.5b02830 Publication Date (Web): October 21, 2015

Copyright © 2015 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Finally, there is a Nov. 11, 2015 article about the research by Jake Wilkinson for Azonano. He provides additional details such as this measurement,

Measuring approximately 50nm in diameter, the new nanoparticle features three differently designed layers. …

*’ayered’ changed to ‘layered’ on Nov. 11, 2015.

Blue Brain Project builds a digital piece of brain

Caption: This is a photo of a virtual brain slice. Credit: Makram et al./Cell 2015

Caption: This is a photo of a virtual brain slice. Credit: Makram et al./Cell 2015

Here’s more *about this virtual brain slice* from an Oct. 8, 2015 Cell (magazine) news release on EurekAlert,

If you want to learn how something works, one strategy is to take it apart and put it back together again [also known as reverse engineering]. For 10 years, a global initiative called the Blue Brain Project–hosted at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL)–has been attempting to do this digitally with a section of juvenile rat brain. The project presents a first draft of this reconstruction, which contains over 31,000 neurons, 55 layers of cells, and 207 different neuron subtypes, on October 8 [2015] in Cell.

Heroic efforts are currently being made to define all the different types of neurons in the brain, to measure their electrical firing properties, and to map out the circuits that connect them to one another. These painstaking efforts are giving us a glimpse into the building blocks and logic of brain wiring. However, getting a full, high-resolution picture of all the features and activity of the neurons within a brain region and the circuit-level behaviors of these neurons is a major challenge.

Henry Markram and colleagues have taken an engineering approach to this question by digitally reconstructing a slice of the neocortex, an area of the brain that has benefitted from extensive characterization. Using this wealth of data, they built a virtual brain slice representing the different neuron types present in this region and the key features controlling their firing and, most notably, modeling their connectivity, including nearly 40 million synapses and 2,000 connections between each brain cell type.

“The reconstruction required an enormous number of experiments,” says Markram, of the EPFL. “It paves the way for predicting the location, numbers, and even the amount of ion currents flowing through all 40 million synapses.”

Once the reconstruction was complete, the investigators used powerful supercomputers to simulate the behavior of neurons under different conditions. Remarkably, the researchers found that, by slightly adjusting just one parameter, the level of calcium ions, they could produce broader patterns of circuit-level activity that could not be predicted based on features of the individual neurons. For instance, slow synchronous waves of neuronal activity, which have been observed in the brain during sleep, were triggered in their simulations, suggesting that neural circuits may be able to switch into different “states” that could underlie important behaviors.

“An analogy would be a computer processor that can reconfigure to focus on certain tasks,” Markram says. “The experiments suggest the existence of a spectrum of states, so this raises new types of questions, such as ‘what if you’re stuck in the wrong state?'” For instance, Markram suggests that the findings may open up new avenues for explaining how initiating the fight-or-flight response through the adrenocorticotropic hormone yields tunnel vision and aggression.

The Blue Brain Project researchers plan to continue exploring the state-dependent computational theory while improving the model they’ve built. All of the results to date are now freely available to the scientific community at https://bbp.epfl.ch/nmc-portal.

An Oct. 8, 2015 Hebrew University of Jerusalem press release on the Canadian Friends of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem website provides more detail,

Published by the renowned journal Cell, the paper is the result of a massive effort by 82 scientists and engineers at EPFL and at institutions in Israel, Spain, Hungary, USA, China, Sweden, and the UK. It represents the culmination of 20 years of biological experimentation that generated the core dataset, and 10 years of computational science work that developed the algorithms and built the software ecosystem required to digitally reconstruct and simulate the tissue.

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Prof. Idan Segev, a senior author of the research paper, said: “With the Blue Brain Project, we are creating a digital reconstruction of the brain and using supercomputer simulations of its electrical behavior to reveal a variety of brain states. This allows us to examine brain phenomena within a purely digital environment and conduct experiments previously only possible using biological tissue. The insights we gather from these experiments will help us to understand normal and abnormal brain states, and in the future may have the potential to help us develop new avenues for treating brain disorders.”

Segev, a member of the Hebrew University’s Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Brain Sciences and director of the university’s Department of Neurobiology, sees the paper as building on the pioneering work of the Spanish anatomist Ramon y Cajal from more than 100 years ago: “Ramon y Cajal began drawing every type of neuron in the brain by hand. He even drew in arrows to describe how he thought the information was flowing from one neuron to the next. Today, we are doing what Cajal would be doing with the tools of the day: building a digital representation of the neurons and synapses, and simulating the flow of information between neurons on supercomputers. Furthermore, the digitization of the tissue is open to the community and allows the data and the models to be preserved and reused for future generations.”

While a long way from digitizing the whole brain, the study demonstrates that it is feasible to digitally reconstruct and simulate brain tissue, and most importantly, to reveal novel insights into the brain’s functioning. Simulating the emergent electrical behavior of this virtual tissue on supercomputers reproduced a range of previous observations made in experiments on the brain, validating its biological accuracy and providing new insights into the functioning of the neocortex. This is a first step and a significant contribution to Europe’s Human Brain Project, which Henry Markram founded, and where EPFL is the coordinating partner.

Cell has made a video abstract available (it can be found with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem press release)

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

Reconstruction and Simulation of Neocortical Microcircuitry by Henry Markram, Eilif Muller, Srikanth Ramaswamy, Michael W. Reimann, Marwan Abdellah, Carlos Aguado Sanchez, Anastasia Ailamaki, Lidia Alonso-Nanclares, Nicolas Antille, Selim Arsever, Guy Antoine Atenekeng Kahou, Thomas K. Berger, Ahmet Bilgili, Nenad Buncic, Athanassia Chalimourda, Giuseppe Chindemi, Jean-Denis Courcol, Fabien Delalondre, Vincent Delattre, Shaul Druckmann, Raphael Dumusc, James Dynes, Stefan Eilemann, Eyal Gal, Michael Emiel Gevaert, Jean-Pierre Ghobril, Albert Gidon, Joe W. Graham, Anirudh Gupta, Valentin Haenel, Etay Hay, Thomas Heinis, Juan B. Hernando, Michael Hines, Lida Kanari, Daniel Keller, John Kenyon, Georges Khazen, Yihwa Kim, James G. King, Zoltan Kisvarday, Pramod Kumbhar, Sébastien Lasserre, Jean-Vincent Le Bé, Bruno R.C. Magalhães, Angel Merchán-Pérez, Julie Meystre, Benjamin Roy Morrice, Jeffrey Muller, Alberto Muñoz-Céspedes, Shruti Muralidhar, Keerthan Muthurasa, Daniel Nachbaur, Taylor H. Newton, Max Nolte, Aleksandr Ovcharenko, Juan Palacios, Luis Pastor, Rodrigo Perin, Rajnish Ranjan, Imad Riachi, José-Rodrigo Rodríguez, Juan Luis Riquelme, Christian Rössert, Konstantinos Sfyrakis, Ying Shi, Julian C. Shillcock, Gilad Silberberg, Ricardo Silva, Farhan Tauheed, Martin Telefont, Maria Toledo-Rodriguez, Thomas Tränkler, Werner Van Geit, Jafet Villafranca Díaz, Richard Walker, Yun Wang, Stefano M. Zaninetta, Javier DeFelipe, Sean L. Hill, Idan Segev, Felix Schürmann. Cell, Volume 163, Issue 2, p456–492, 8 October 2015 DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cell.2015.09.029

This paper appears to be open access.

My most substantive description of the Blue Brain Project , previous to this, was in a Jan. 29, 2013 posting featuring the European Union’s (EU) Human Brain project and involvement from countries that are not members.

* I edited a redundant lede (That’s a virtual slice of a rat brain.), moved the second sentence to the lede while adding this:  *about this virtual brain slice* on Oct. 16, 2015 at 0955 hours PST.

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.