Tag Archives: Sweden

Equality doesn’t necessarily lead to greater women’s STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) participation?

It seems counter-intuitive but societies where women have achieved greater equality see less participation by women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) than countries where women are treated differently. This rather stunning research was released on February 14, 2018 (yes, Valentine’s Day).

Women, equality, STEM

Both universities involved in this research have made news/press releases available. First, there’s the February 14, 2018 Leeds Beckett University (UK) press release,

Countries with greater gender equality see a smaller proportion of women taking degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), a new study by Leeds Beckett has found.

Dubbed the ‘gender equality paradox’, the research found that countries such as Albania and Algeria have a greater percentage of women amongst their STEM graduates than countries lauded for their high levels of gender equality, such as Finland, Norway or Sweden.

The researchers, from Leeds Beckett’s School of Social Sciences and the University of Missouri, believe this might be because countries with less gender equality often have little welfare support, making the choice of a relatively highly-paid STEM career more attractive.

The study, published in Psychological Science, also looked at what might motivate girls and boys to choose to study STEM subjects, including overall ability, interest or enjoyment in the subject and whether science subjects were a personal academic strength.

Using data on 475,000 adolescents across 67 countries or regions, the researchers found that while boys’ and girls’ achievement in STEM subjects was broadly similar, science was more likely to be boys’ best subject.

Girls, even when their ability in science equalled or excelled that of boys, were often likely to be better overall in reading comprehension, which relates to higher ability in non-STEM subjects.

Girls also tended to register a lower interest in science subjects. These differences were near-universal across all the countries and regions studied.

This could explain some of the gender disparity in STEM participation, according to Leeds Beckett Professor in Psychology Gijsbert Stoet.

“The further you get in secondary and then higher education, the more subjects you need to drop until you end with just one.

“We are inclined to choose what we are best at and also enjoy. This makes sense and matches common school advice.

“So, even though girls can match boys in terms of how well they do at science and mathematics in school, if those aren’t their best subjects and they are less interested in them, then they’re likely to choose to study something else.”

The researchers also looked at how many girls might be expected to choose further study in STEM based on these criteria.

They took the number of girls in each country who had the necessary ability in STEM and for whom it was also their best subject and compared this to the number of women graduating in STEM.

They found there was a disparity in all countries, but with the gap once again larger in more gender equal countries.

In the UK, 29 per cent of STEM graduates are female, whereas 48 per cent of UK girls might be expected to take those subjects based on science ability alone. This drops to 39 per cent when both science ability and interest in the subject are taken into account.

Countries with higher gender equality tend also to be welfare states, providing a high level of social security for their citizens.

Professor Stoet said: “STEM careers are generally secure and well-paid but the risks of not following such a path can vary.

“In more affluent countries where any choice of career feels relatively safe, women may feel able to make choices based on non-economic factors.

“Conversely, in countries with fewer economic opportunities, or where employment might be precarious, a well-paid and relatively secure STEM career can be more attractive to women.”

Despite extensive efforts to increase participation of women in STEM, levels have remained broadly stable for decades, but these findings could help target interventions to make them more effective, say the researchers.

“It’s important to take into account that girls are choosing not to study STEM for what they feel are valid reasons, so campaigns that target all girls may be a waste of energy and resources,” said Professor Stoet.

“If governments want to increase women’s participation in STEM, a more effective strategy might be to target the girls who are clearly being ‘lost’ from the STEM pathway: those for whom science and maths are their best subjects and who enjoy it but still don’t choose it.

“If we can understand their motivations, then interventions can be designed to help them change their minds.”

Then, there’s the February 14, 2018 University of Missouri news release, some of which will be repetitive,

The underrepresentation of girls and women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields occurs globally. Although women currently are well represented in life sciences, they continue to be underrepresented in inorganic sciences, such as computer science and physics. Now, researchers from the University of Missouri and Leeds Beckett University in the United Kingdom have found that as societies become wealthier and more gender equal, women are less likely to obtain degrees in STEM. The researchers call this a “gender-equality paradox.” Researchers also discovered a near-universal sex difference in academic strengths and weaknesses that contributes to the STEM gap. Findings from the study could help refine education efforts and policies geared toward encouraging girls and women with strengths in science or math to participate in STEM fields.

The researchers found that, throughout the world, boys’ academic strengths tend to be in science or mathematics, while girls’ strengths are in reading. Students who have personal strengths in science or math are more likely to enter STEM fields, whereas students with reading as a personal strength are more likely to enter non-STEM fields, according to David Geary, Curators Professor of Psychological Sciences in the MU College of Arts and Science. These sex differences in academic strengths, as well as interest in science, may explain why the sex differences in STEM fields has been stable for decades, and why current approaches to address them have failed.

“We analyzed data on 475,000 adolescents across 67 countries or regions and found that while boys’ and girls’ achievements in STEM subjects were broadly similar in all countries, science was more likely to be boys’ best subject,” Geary said. “Girls, even when their abilities in science equaled or excelled that of boys, often were likely to be better overall in reading comprehension, which relates to higher ability in non-STEM subjects. As a result, these girls tended to seek out other professions unrelated to STEM fields.”

Surprisingly, this trend was larger for girls and women living in countries with greater gender equality. The authors call this a “gender-equality paradox,” because countries lauded for their high levels of gender equality, such as Finland, Norway or Sweden, have relatively few women among their STEM graduates. In contrast, more socially conservative countries such as Turkey or Algeria have a much larger percentage of women among their STEM graduates.

“In countries with greater gender equality, women are actively encouraged to participate in STEM; yet, they lose more girls because of personal academic strengths,” Geary said. “In more liberal and wealthy countries, personal preferences are more strongly expressed. One consequence is that sex differences in academic strengths and interests become larger and have a stronger influence college and career choices than in more conservative and less wealthy countries, creating the gender-equality paradox.”

The combination of personal academic strengths in reading, lower interest in science, and broader financial security explains why so few women choose a STEM career in highly developed nations.

“STEM careers are generally secure and well-paid but the risks of not following such a path can vary,” said Gijsbert Stoet, Professor in Psychology at Leeds Beckett University. “In more affluent countries where any choice of career feels relatively safe, women may feel able to make choices based on non-economic factors. Conversely, in countries with fewer economic opportunities, or where employment might be precarious, a well-paid and relatively secure STEM career can be more attractive to women.”

Findings from this study could help target interventions to make them more effective, say the researchers. Policymakers should reconsider failing national policies focusing on decreasing the gender imbalance in STEM, the researchers add.

The University of Missouri also produced a brief video featuring Professor David Geary discussing the work,

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

The Gender-Equality Paradox in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Education by Gijsbert Stoet, David C. Geary. Psychological Studies https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797617741719 First Published February 14, 2018 Research Article

This paper is behind a paywall.

Gender equality and STEM: a deeper dive

Olga Khazan in a February 18, 2018 article for The Atlantic provides additional insight (Note: Links have been removed),

Though their numbers are growing, only 27 percent of all students taking the AP Computer Science exam in the United States are female. The gender gap only grows worse from there: Just 18 percent of American computer-science college degrees go to women. This is in the United States, where many college men proudly describe themselves as “male feminists” and girls are taught they can be anything they want to be.

Meanwhile, in Algeria, 41 percent of college graduates in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math—or “STEM,” as its known—are female. There, employment discrimination against women is rife and women are often pressured to make amends with their abusive husbands.

According to a report I covered a few years ago, Jordan, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates were the only three countries in which boys are significantly less likely to feel comfortable working on math problems than girls are. In all of the other nations surveyed, girls were more likely to say they feel “helpless while performing a math problem.”

… this line of research, if it’s replicated, might hold useful takeaways for people who do want to see more Western women entering STEM fields. In this study, the percentage of girls who did excel in science or math was still larger than the number of women who were graduating with STEM degrees. That means there’s something in even the most liberal societies that’s nudging women away from math and science, even when those are their best subjects. The women-in-STEM advocates could, for starters, focus their efforts on those would-be STEM stars.

Final thoughts

This work upends notions (mine anyway) about equality and STEM with regard to women’s participation in countries usually described as ‘developed’ as opposed to ‘developing’. I am thankful to have my ideas shaken up and being forced to review my assumptions about STEM participation and equality of opportunity.

John Timmer in a February 19, 2018 posting on the Ars Technica blog offers a critique of the research and its conclusions,

… The countries where the science-degree gender gap is smaller tend to be less socially secure. The researchers suggest that the economic security provided by fields like engineering may have a stronger draw in these countries, pulling more women into the field.

They attempt to use a statistical pathway analysis to see if the data is consistent with this being the case, but the results are inconclusive. It may be right, but there would be at least one other strong factor that they have not identified involved.

Timmer’s piece is well worth reading.

For some reason the discussion about a lack of social safety nets and precarious conditions leading women to greater STEM participation reminds me of a truism about the arts. Constraints can force you into greater creativity. Although balance is necessary as you don’t want to destroy what you’re trying to encourage. In this case, it seems that comfortable lifestyles can lead women to pursue that which comes more easily whereas women trying to make a better life in difficult circumstance will pursue a more challenging path.

Stronger than steel and spider silk: artificial, biodegradable, cellulose nanofibres

This is an artificial and biodegradable are two adjectives you don’t usually see united by the conjunction, and. However, it is worth noting that the artificial material is initially derived from a natural material, cellulose. Here’s more from a May 16, 2018 news item on ScienceDaily,

At DESY’s [Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron] X-ray light source PETRA III, a team led by Swedish researchers has produced the strongest bio-material that has ever been made. The artifical, but bio-degradable cellulose fibres are stronger than steel and even than dragline spider silk, which is usually considered the strongest bio-based material. The team headed by Daniel Söderberg from the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm reports the work in the journal ACS Nano of the American Chemical Society.

A May 16, 2018 DESY press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail,

The ultrastrong material is made of cellulose nanofibres (CNF), the essential building blocks of wood and other plant life. Using a novel production method, the researchers have successfully transferred the unique mechanical properties of these nanofibres to a macroscopic, lightweight material that could be used as an eco-friendly alternative for plastic in airplanes, cars, furniture and other products. “Our new material even has potential for biomedicine since cellulose is not rejected by your body”, explains Söderberg.

The scientists started with commercially available cellulose nanofibres that are just 2 to 5 nanometres in diameter and up to 700 nanometres long. A nanometre (nm) is a millionth of a millimetre. The nanofibres were suspended in water and fed into a small channel, just one millimetre wide and milled in steel. Through two pairs of perpendicular inflows additional deionized water and water with a low pH-value entered the channel from the sides, squeezing the stream of nanofibres together and accelerating it.

This process, called hydrodynamic focussing, helped to align the nanofibres in the right direction as well as their self-organisation into a well-packed macroscopic thread. No glue or any other component is needed, the nanofibres assemble into a tight thread held together by supramolecular forces between the nanofibres, for example electrostatic and Van der Waals forces.

With the bright X-rays from PETRA III the scientists could follow and optimise the process. “The X-rays allow us to analyse the detailed structure of the thread as it forms as well as the material structure and hierarchical order in the super strong fibres,” explains co-author Stephan Roth from DESY, head of the Micro- and Nanofocus X-ray Scattering Beamline P03 where the threads were spun. “We made threads up to 15 micrometres thick and several metres in length.”

Measurements showed a tensile stiffness of 86 gigapascals (GPa) for the material and a tensile strength of 1.57 GPa. “The bio-based nanocellulose fibres fabricated here are 8 times stiffer and have strengths higher than natural dragline spider silk fibres,” says Söderberg. “If you are looking for a bio-based material, there is nothing quite like it. And it is also stronger than steel and any other metal or alloy as well as glass fibres and most other synthetic materials.” The artificial cellulose fibres can be woven into a fabric to create materials for various applications. The researchers estimate that the production costs of the new material can compete with those of strong synthetic fabrics. “The new material can in principle be used to create bio-degradable components,” adds Roth.

The study describes a new method that mimics nature’s ability to accumulate cellulose nanofibres into almost perfect macroscale arrangements, like in wood. It opens the way for developing nanofibre material that can be used for larger structures while retaining the nanofibres’ tensile strength and ability to withstand mechanical load. “We can now transform the super performance from the nanoscale to the macroscale,” Söderberg underlines. “This discovery is made possible by understanding and controlling the key fundamental parameters essential for perfect nanostructuring, such as particle size, interactions, alignment, diffusion, network formation and assembly.” The process can also be used to control nanoscale assembly of carbon tubes and other nano-sized fibres.

(There are some terminology and spelling issues, which are described at the end of this post.)

Let’s get back to a material that rivals spider silk and steel for strength (for some reason that reminded me of an old carnival game where you’d test your strength by swinging a mallet down on a ‘teeter-totter-like’ board and sending a metal piece up a post to make a bell ring). From a May 16, 2018 DESY press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item,

The ultrastrong material is made of cellulose nanofibres (CNF), the essential building blocks of wood and other plant life. Using a novel production method, the researchers have successfully transferred the unique mechanical properties of these nanofibres to a macroscopic, lightweight material that could be used as an eco-friendly alternative for plastic in airplanes, cars, furniture and other products. “Our new material even has potential for biomedicine since cellulose is not rejected by your body”, explains Söderberg.

The scientists started with commercially available cellulose nanofibres that are just 2 to 5 nanometres in diameter and up to 700 nanometres long. A nanometre (nm) is a millionth of a millimetre. The nanofibres were suspended in water and fed into a small channel, just one millimetre wide and milled in steel. Through two pairs of perpendicular inflows additional deionized water and water with a low pH-value entered the channel from the sides, squeezing the stream of nanofibres together and accelerating it.

This process, called hydrodynamic focussing, helped to align the nanofibres in the right direction as well as their self-organisation into a well-packed macroscopic thread. No glue or any other component is needed, the nanofibres assemble into a tight thread held together by supramolecular forces between the nanofibres, for example electrostatic and Van der Waals forces.

With the bright X-rays from PETRA III the scientists could follow and optimise the process. “The X-rays allow us to analyse the detailed structure of the thread as it forms as well as the material structure and hierarchical order in the super strong fibres,” explains co-author Stephan Roth from DESY, head of the Micro- and Nanofocus X-ray Scattering Beamline P03 where the threads were spun. “We made threads up to 15 micrometres thick and several metres in length.”

Measurements showed a tensile stiffness of 86 gigapascals (GPa) for the material and a tensile strength of 1.57 GPa. “The bio-based nanocellulose fibres fabricated here are 8 times stiffer and have strengths higher than natural dragline spider silk fibres,” says Söderberg. “If you are looking for a bio-based material, there is nothing quite like it. And it is also stronger than steel and any other metal or alloy as well as glass fibres and most other synthetic materials.” The artificial cellulose fibres can be woven into a fabric to create materials for various applications. The researchers estimate that the production costs of the new material can compete with those of strong synthetic fabrics. “The new material can in principle be used to create bio-degradable components,” adds Roth.

The study describes a new method that mimics nature’s ability to accumulate cellulose nanofibres into almost perfect macroscale arrangements, like in wood. It opens the way for developing nanofibre material that can be used for larger structures while retaining the nanofibres’ tensile strength and ability to withstand mechanical load. “We can now transform the super performance from the nanoscale to the macroscale,” Söderberg underlines. “This discovery is made possible by understanding and controlling the key fundamental parameters essential for perfect nanostructuring, such as particle size, interactions, alignment, diffusion, network formation and assembly.” The process can also be used to control nanoscale assembly of carbon tubes and other nano-sized fibres.

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

Multiscale Control of Nanocellulose Assembly: Transferring Remarkable Nanoscale Fibril Mechanics to Macroscale Fibers by Nitesh Mittal, Farhan Ansari, Krishne Gowda V, Christophe Brouzet, Pan Chen, Per Tomas Larsson, Stephan V. Roth, Fredrik Lundell, Lars Wågberg, Nicholas A. Kotov, and L. Daniel Söderberg. ACS Nano, Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/acsnano.8b01084 Publication Date (Web): May 9, 2018

Copyright © 2018 American Chemical Society

This paper is open access and accompanied by this image illustrating the work,

Courtesy: American Chemical Society and the researchers [Note: The bottom two images of cellulose nanofibres, which are constittuents of an artificial cellulose fibre, appear to be from a scanning tunneling microsscope. Credit: Nitesh Mittal, KTH Stockholm

This news has excited interest at General Electric (GE) (its Wikipedia entry), which has highlighted the work in a May 25, 2018 posting (The 5 Coolest Things On Earth This Week) by Tomas Kellner on the GE Reports blog.

Terminology and spelling

I’ll start with spelling since that’s the easier of the two. In some parts of the world it’s spelled ‘fibres’ and in other parts of the world it’s spelled ‘fibers’. When I write the text in my post, it tends to reflect the spelling used in the news/press releases. In other words, I swing in whichever direction the wind is blowing.

For diehards only

As i understand the terminology situation, nanocellulose and cellulose nanomaterials are interchangeable generic terms. Further, cellulose nanofibres (CNF) seems to be another generic term and it encompasses both cellulose nanocrystals (CNC) and cellulose nanofibrils (CNF). Yes, there appear to be two CNFs. Making matters more interesting is the fact that cellulose nanocrystals were originally christened nanocrystalline cellulose (NCC). For anyone who follows the science and technology scene, it becomes obvious that competing terminologies are the order of the day. Eventually the dust settles and naming conventions are resolved. More or less.

Ordinarily I would reference the Nanocellulose Wikipedia entry in my attempts to clarify the issues but it seems that the writers for the entry have not caught up to the current naming convention for cellulose nanocrystals, still referring to the material as nanocrystalline cellulose. This means, I can’t trust the rest of the entry, which has only one CNF (cellulose nanofibres).

I have paid more attention to the NCC/CNC situation and am not as familiar with the CNF situation. Using, NCC/CNC as an example of a terminology issue, I believe it was first developed in Canada and it was Canadian researchers who were pushing their NCC terminology while the international community pushed back with CNC.

In the end, NCC became a brand name, which was trademarked by CelluForce, a Canadian company in the CNC market. From the CelluForce Products page on Cellulose Nanocrystals,

CNC are not all made equal. The CNC produced by CelluForce is called CelluForce NCCTM and has specific properties and are especially easy to disperse. CelluForce NCCTM is the base material that CelluForce uses in all its products. This base material can be modified and tailored to suit the specific needs in various applications.

These, days CNC is almost universally used but NCC (not as a trademark) is a term still employed on occasion (and, oddly, the researchers are not necessarily Canadian).

Should anyone have better information about terminology issues, please feel free to comment.

Cellulose aerogels for new wood-based composites

‘Frozen smoke’ or ‘solid smoke’ as it’s sometimes described, aerogel fascinates scientists.The latest on cellulose aerogels derived from wood is the focus for a February 14, 2018 Nanowerk Sportlight article by Michael Berger (Note: Links have been removed),

Aerogels, sometimes called frozen smoke, are nanoscale foams: solid materials whose sponge-like structure is riddled by pores as small as nanometers across. They can be made from different materials, for instance silicon.

Aerogels are among the lightest solid substances in the world yet flexible, extremely strong and water repellent, which makes them very interesting materials for engineers.

Cellulose aerogels, made from nanofibrils found in plants, have several unique features, one of which is super high oil absorption capacity that is several times higher than commercial sorbents available in the market.

“Encouraged from our previous work on transparent wood (“Transparent wood for functional and structural applications”; “Optically Transparent Wood from a Nanoporous Cellulosic Template: Combining Functional and Structural Performance”; “Nanostructured Wood Hybrids for Fire-Retardancy Prepared by Clay Impregnation into the Cell Wall”), we started to develop porous wood/epoxy biocomposite materials, which preserves the original hierarchical and porous structure of wood,” Qi Zhou, an associate professor in the Department of Chemistry at KTH Royal Institute of Technology, tells Nanowerk.

“Our strategy is different from traditional wood modification methods,” explains Zhou. “It involves two steps, a simple chemical treatment to remove the lignin (delignification) at first, then back infiltration of the wood cell wall with epoxy, leaving the lumen (a void space) open. In traditional wood polymer composites, both the cell wall and cell lumen are filled with polymer.”

The scientists don’t seem to have any particular applications in mind but they are hopeful that new materials will inspire new uses. Here’s a link to and a citation for Zhou’s latest paper,

Wood Nanotechnology for Strong, Mesoporous, and Hydrophobic Biocomposites for Selective Separation of Oil/Water Mixtures by Qiliang Fu, Farhan Ansari, Qi Zhou, and Lars A. Berglund. ACS Nano, Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/acsnano.8b00005 Publication Date (Web): February 7, 2018

Copyright © 2018 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Organic nanoelectronics in water

Researchers in Sweden have developed organic electronics that are stable in water according to a January 11, 2018 news item on ScienceDaily,

Researchers at the Laboratory of Organic Electronics, Linköping University [Sweden], have developed the world’s first complementary electrochemical logic circuits that can function stably for long periods in water. This is a highly significant breakthrough in the development of bioelectronics.

A January 11, 2018 Linköping University press release, which originated the news item, notes this latest advance is based on work that started in 2002,

Complementary logic circuitComplementary logic circuit Photo credit: Thor Balkhed

The first printable organic electrochemical transistors were presented by researchers at LiU as early as 2002, and research since then has progressed rapidly. Several organic electronic components, such as light-emitting diodes and electrochromic displays, are already commercially available.

The dominating material used until now has been PEDOT:PSS, which is a p-type material, in which the charge carriers are holes. In order to construct effective electron components, a complementary material, n-type, is required, in which the charge carriers are electrons.
It has been difficult to find a sufficiently stable polymer material, one that can operate in water media and in which the long polymer chains can sustain high current when the material is doped.

N-type material

In an article in the prestigious scientific journal Advanced Materials, Simone Fabiano, head of research in the Organic Nanoelectronics group at the Laboratory of Organic Electronics, presents, together with his colleagues, results from an n-type conducting material in which the ladder-type structure of the polymer backbone favours ambient stability and high current when doped. One example is BBL, poly(benzimidazobenzophenanthroline), a material often used in solar cell research.

Postdoctoral researcher Hengda Sun has found a method to create thick films of the material. The thicker the film, the greater the conductivity.

“We have used spray-coating to produce films up to 200 nm thick. These can reach extremely high conductivities,” says Simone Fabiano.

The method can also be successfully used together with printed electronics across large surfaces.

Hengda Sun has also shown that the circuits function for long periods, both in the presence of oxygen and water.

Moist surroundings

“This may appear at first glance to be a small advance in a specialised field, but what is great about it is that it has major consequences for many applications. We can now construct complementary logic circuits – inverters, sensors and other components – that function in moist surroundings,” says Simone Fabiano.

“Resistors are needed in logical circuits that are based solely on p-type electrochemical transistors. These are rather bulky, and this limits the applications that can be achieved. With an n-type material in our toolbox, we can produce complementary circuits that occupy the available space much more efficiently, since resistors are no longer required in the logical circuits,” says Magnus Berggren, professor of organic electronics and head of the Laboratory for Organic Electronics.

Applications of the organic components include logic circuits that can be printed on textile or paper, various types of cheap sensor, non-rigid and flexible displays, and – not least – the huge field of bioelectronics. Polymers that conduct both ions and electrons are the bridge needed between the ion-conducting systems in the body and the electronic components of, for example, sensors.

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

Complementary Logic Circuits Based on High-Performance n-Type Organic Electrochemical Transistors by Hengda Sun, Mikhail Vagin, Suhao Wang, Xavier Crispin, Robert Forchheimer, Magnus Berggren, and Simone Fabiano. Advanced Materials Vol. 30 Issue 3 Version of Record online: 10 JAN 2018 DOI: 10.1002/adma.201704916

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

This paper is behind a paywall.

Canada’s ‘Smart Cities’ will need new technology (5G wireless) and, maybe, graphene

I recently published [March 20, 2018] a piece on ‘smart cities’ both an art/science event in Toronto and a Canadian government initiative without mentioning the necessity of new technology to support all of the grand plans. On that note, it seems the Canadian federal government and two provincial (Québec and Ontario) governments are prepared to invest in one of the necessary ‘new’ technologies, 5G wireless. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) Shawn Benjamin reports about Canada’s 5G plans in suitably breathless (even in text only) tones of excitement in a March 19, 2018 article,

The federal, Ontario and Quebec governments say they will spend $200 million to help fund research into 5G wireless technology, the next-generation networks with download speeds 100 times faster than current ones can handle.

The so-called “5G corridor,” known as ENCQOR, will see tech companies such as Ericsson, Ciena Canada, Thales Canada, IBM and CGI kick in another $200 million to develop facilities to get the project up and running.

The idea is to set up a network of linked research facilities and laboratories that these companies — and as many as 1,000 more across Canada — will be able to use to test products and services that run on 5G networks.

Benjamin’s description of 5G is focused on what it will make possible in the future,

If you think things are moving too fast, buckle up, because a new 5G cellular network is just around the corner and it promises to transform our lives by connecting nearly everything to a new, much faster, reliable wireless network.

The first networks won’t be operational for at least a few years, but technology and telecom companies around the world are already planning to spend billions to make sure they aren’t left behind, says Lawrence Surtees, a communications analyst with the research firm IDC.

The new 5G is no tentative baby step toward the future. Rather, as Surtees puts it, “the move from 4G to 5G is a quantum leap.”

In a downtown Toronto soundstage, Alan Smithson recently demonstrated a few virtual reality and augmented reality projects that his company MetaVRse is working on.

The potential for VR and AR technology is endless, he said, in large part for its potential to help hurdle some of the walls we are already seeing with current networks.

Virtual Reality technology on the market today is continually increasing things like frame rates and screen resolutions in a constant quest to make their devices even more lifelike.

… They [current 4G networks] can’t handle the load. But 5G can do so easily, Smithson said, so much so that the current era of bulky augmented reality headsets could be replaced buy a pair of normal looking glasses.

In a 5G world, those internet-connected glasses will automatically recognize everyone you meet, and possibly be able to overlay their name in your field of vision, along with a link to their online profile. …

Benjamin also mentions ‘smart cities’,

In a University of Toronto laboratory, Professor Alberto Leon-Garcia researches connected vehicles and smart power grids. “My passion right now is enabling smart cities — making smart cities a reality — and that means having much more immediate and detailed sense of the environment,” he said.

Faster 5G networks will assist his projects in many ways, by giving planners more, instant data on things like traffic patterns, energy consumption, variou carbon footprints and much more.

Leon-Garcia points to a brightly lit map of Toronto [image embedded in Benjamin’s article] in his office, and explains that every dot of light represents a sensor transmitting real time data.

Currently, the network is hooked up to things like city buses, traffic cameras and the city-owned fleet of shared bicycles. He currently has thousands of data points feeding him info on his map, but in a 5G world, the network will support about a million sensors per square kilometre.

Very exciting but where is all this data going? What computers will be processing the information? Where are these sensors located? Benjamin does not venture into those waters nor does The Economist in a February 13, 2018 article about 5G, the Olympic Games in Pyeonchang, South Korea, but the magazine does note another barrier to 5G implementation,

“FASTER, higher, stronger,” goes the Olympic motto. So it is only appropriate that the next generation of wireless technology, “5G” for short, should get its first showcase at the Winter Olympics  under way in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Once fully developed, it is supposed to offer download speeds of at least 20 gigabits per second (4G manages about half that at best) and response times (“latency”) of below 1 millisecond. So the new networks will be able to transfer a high-resolution movie in two seconds and respond to requests in less than a hundredth of the time it takes to blink an eye. But 5G is not just about faster and swifter wireless connections.

The technology is meant to enable all sorts of new services. One such would offer virtual- or augmented-reality experiences. At the Olympics, for example, many contestants are being followed by 360-degree video cameras. At special venues sports fans can don virtual-reality goggles to put themselves right into the action. But 5G is also supposed to become the connective tissue for the internet of things, to link anything from smartphones to wireless sensors and industrial robots to self-driving cars. This will be made possible by a technique called “network slicing”, which allows operators quickly to create bespoke networks that give each set of devices exactly the connectivity they need.

Despite its versatility, it is not clear how quickly 5G will take off. The biggest brake will be economic. [emphasis mine] When the GSMA, an industry group, last year asked 750 telecoms bosses about the most salient impediment to delivering 5G, more than half cited the lack of a clear business case. People may want more bandwidth, but they are not willing to pay for it—an attitude even the lure of the fanciest virtual-reality applications may not change. …

That may not be the only brake, Dexter Johnson in a March 19, 2018 posting on his Nanoclast blog (on the IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] website), covers some of the others (Note: Links have been removed),

Graphene has been heralded as a “wonder material” for well over a decade now, and 5G has been marketed as the next big thing for at least the past five years. Analysts have suggested that 5G could be the golden ticket to virtual reality and artificial intelligence, and promised that graphene could improve technologies within electronics and optoelectronics.

But proponents of both graphene and 5G have also been accused of stirring up hype. There now seems to be a rising sense within industry circles that these glowing technological prospects will not come anytime soon.

At Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona last month [February 2018], some misgivings for these long promised technologies may have been put to rest, though, thanks in large part to each other.

In a meeting at MWC with Jari Kinaret, a professor at Chalmers University in Sweden and director of the Graphene Flagship, I took a guided tour around the Pavilion to see some of the technologies poised to have an impact on the development of 5G.

Being invited back to the MWC for three years is a pretty clear indication of how important graphene is to those who are trying to raise the fortunes of 5G. But just how important became more obvious to me in an interview with Frank Koppens, the leader of the quantum nano-optoelectronic group at Institute of Photonic Sciences (ICFO) just outside of Barcelona, last year.

He said: “5G cannot just scale. Some new technology is needed. And that’s why we have several companies in the Graphene Flagship that are putting a lot of pressure on us to address this issue.”

In a collaboration led by CNIT—a consortium of Italian universities and national laboratories focused on communication technologies—researchers from AMO GmbH, Ericsson, Nokia Bell Labs, and Imec have developed graphene-based photodetectors and modulators capable of receiving and transmitting optical data faster than ever before.

The aim of all this speed for transmitting data is to support the ultrafast data streams with extreme bandwidth that will be part of 5G. In fact, at another section during MWC, Ericsson was presenting the switching of a 100 Gigabits per second (Gbps) channel based on the technology.

“The fact that Ericsson is demonstrating another version of this technology demonstrates that from Ericsson’s point of view, this is no longer just research” said Kinaret.

It’s no mystery why the big mobile companies are jumping on this technology. Not only does it provide high-speed data transmission, but it also does it 10 times more efficiently than silicon or doped silicon devices, and will eventually do it more cheaply than those devices, according to Vito Sorianello, senior researcher at CNIT.

Interestingly, Ericsson is one of the tech companies mentioned with regard to Canada’s 5G project, ENCQOR and Sweden’s Chalmers University, as Dexter Johnson notes, is the lead institution for the Graphene Flagship.. One other fact to note, Canada’s resources include graphite mines with ‘premium’ flakes for producing graphene. Canada’s graphite mines are located (as far as I know) in only two Canadian provinces, Ontario and Québec, which also happen to be pitching money into ENCQOR. My March 21, 2018 posting describes the latest entry into the Canadian graphite mining stakes.

As for the questions I posed about processing power, etc. It seems the South Koreans have found answers of some kind but it’s hard to evaluate as I haven’t found any additional information about 5G and its implementation in South Korea. If anyone has answers, please feel free to leave them in the ‘comments’. Thank you.

China is world leader in nanotechnology and in other fields too?

State of Chinese nanoscience/nanotechnology

China claims to be the world leader in the field in a white paper announced in an August 29, 2017 Springer Nature press release,

Springer Nature, the National Center for Nanoscience and Technology, China and the National Science Library of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) released in both Chinese and English a white paper entitled “Small Science in Big China: An overview of the state of Chinese nanoscience and technology” at NanoChina 2017, an international conference on nanoscience and technology held August 28 and 29 in Beijing. The white paper looks at the rapid growth of China’s nanoscience research into its current role as the world’s leader [emphasis mine], examines China’s strengths and challenges, and makes some suggestions for how its contribution to the field can continue to thrive.

The white paper points out that China has become a strong contributor to nanoscience research in the world, and is a powerhouse of nanotechnology R&D. Some of China’s basic research is leading the world. China’s applied nanoscience research and the industrialization of nanotechnologies have also begun to take shape. These achievements are largely due to China’s strong investment in nanoscience and technology. China’s nanoscience research is also moving from quantitative increase to quality improvement and innovation, with greater emphasis on the applications of nanotechnologies.

“China took an initial step into nanoscience research some twenty years ago, and has since grown its commitment at an unprecedented rate, as it has for scientific research as a whole. Such a growth is reflected both in research quantity and, importantly, in quality. Therefore, I regard nanoscience as a window through which to observe the development of Chinese science, and through which we could analyze how that rapid growth has happened. Further, the experience China has gained in developing nanoscience and related technologies is a valuable resource for the other countries and other fields of research to dig deep into and draw on,” said Arnout Jacobs, President, Greater China, Springer Nature.

The white paper explores at China’s research output relative to the rest of the world in terms of research paper output, research contribution contained in the Nano database, and finally patents, providing insight into China’s strengths and expertise in nano research. The white paper also presents the results of a survey of experts from the community discussing the outlook for and challenges to the future of China’s nanoscience research.

China nano research output: strong rise in quantity and quality

In 1997, around 13,000 nanoscience-related papers were published globally. By 2016, this number had risen to more than 154,000 nano-related research papers. This corresponds to a compound annual growth rate of 14% per annum, almost four times the growth in publications across all areas of research of 3.7%. Over the same period of time, the nano-related output from China grew from 820 papers in 1997 to over 52,000 papers in 2016, a compound annual growth rate of 24%.

China’s contribution to the global total has been growing steadily. In 1997, Chinese researchers co-authored just 6% of the nano-related papers contained in the Science Citation Index (SCI). By 2010, this grew to match the output of the United States. They now contribute over a third of the world’s total nanoscience output — almost twice that of the United States.

Additionally, China’s share of the most cited nanoscience papers has kept increasing year on year, with a compound annual growth rate of 22% — more than three times the global rate. It overtook the United States in 2014 and its contribution is now many times greater than that of any other country in the world, manifesting an impressive progression in both quantity and quality.

The rapid growth of nanoscience in China has been enabled by consistent and strong financial support from the Chinese government. As early as 1990, the State Science and Technology Committee, the predecessor of the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST), launched the Climbing Up project on nanomaterial science. During the 1990s, the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC) also funded nearly 1,000 small-scale projects in nanoscience. In the National Guideline on Medium- and Long-Term Program for Science and Technology Development (for 2006−2020) issued in early 2006 by the Chinese central government, nanoscience was identified as one of four areas of basic research and received the largest proportion of research budget out of the four areas. The brain boomerang, with more and more foreign-trained Chinese researchers returning from overseas, is another contributor to China’s rapid rise in nanoscience.

The white paper clarifies the role of Chinese institutions, including CAS, in driving China’s rise to become the world’s leader in nanoscience. Currently, CAS is the world’s largest producer of high impact nano research, contributing more than twice as many papers in the 1% most-cited nanoscience literature than its closest competitors. In addition to CAS, five other Chinese institutions are ranked among the global top 20 in terms of output of top cited 1% nanoscience papers — Tsinghua University, Fudan University, Zhejiang University, University of Science and Technology of China and Peking University.

Nano database reveals advantages and focus of China’s nano research

The Nano database (http://nano.nature.com) is a comprehensive platform that has been recently developed by Nature Research – part of Springer Nature – which contains nanoscience-related papers published in 167 peer-reviewed journals including Advanced Materials, Nano Letters, Nature, Science and more. Analysis of the Nano database of nanomaterial-containing articles published in top 30 journals during 2014–2016 shows that Chinese scientists explore a wide range of nanomaterials, the five most common of which are nanostructured materials, nanoparticles, nanosheets, nanodevices and nanoporous materials.

In terms of the research of applications, China has a clear leading edge in catalysis research, which is the most popular area of the country’s quality nanoscience papers. Chinese nano researchers also contributed significantly to nanomedicine and energy-related applications. China is relatively weaker in nanomaterials for electronics applications, compared to other research powerhouses, but robotics and lasers are emerging applications areas of nanoscience in China, and nanoscience papers addressing photonics and data storage applications also see strong growth in China. Over 80% of research from China listed in the database explicitly mentions applications of the nanostructures and nanomaterials described, notably higher than from most other leading nations such as the United States, Germany, the UK, Japan and France.

Nano also reveals the extent of China’s international collaborations in nano research. China has seen the percentage of its internationally collaborated papers increasing from 36% in 2014 to 44% in 2016. This level of international collaboration, similar to that of South Korea, is still much lower than that of the western countries, and the rate of growth is also not as fast as those in the United States, France and Germany.

The United States is China’s biggest international collaborator, contributing to 55% of China’s internationally collaborated papers on nanoscience that are included in the top 30 journals in the Nano database. Germany, Australia and Japan follow in a descending order as China’s collaborators on nano-related quality papers.

China’s patent output: topping the world, mostly applied domestically

Analysis of the Derwent Innovation Index (DII) database of Clarivate Analytics shows that China’s accumulative total number of patent applications for the past 20 years, amounting to 209,344 applications, or 45% of the global total, is more than twice as many as that of the United States, the second largest contributor to nano-related patents. China surpassed the United States and ranked the top in the world since 2008.

Five Chinese institutions, including the CAS, Zhejiang University, Tsinghua University, Hon Hai Precision Industry Co., Ltd. and Tianjin University can be found among the global top 10 institutional contributors to nano-related patent applications. CAS has been at the top of the global rankings since 2008, with a total of 11,218 patent applications for the past 20 years. Interestingly, outside of China, most of the other big institutional contributors among the top 10 are commercial enterprises, while in China, research or academic institutions are leading in patent applications.

However, the number of nano-related patents China applied overseas is still very low, accounting for only 2.61% of its total patent applications for the last 20 years cumulatively, whereas the proportion in the United States is nearly 50%. In some European countries, including the UK and France, more than 70% of patent applications are filed overseas.

China has high numbers of patent applications in several popular technical areas for nanotechnology use, and is strongest in patents for polymer compositions and macromolecular compounds. In comparison, nano-related patent applications in the United States, South Korea and Japan are mainly for electronics or semiconductor devices, with the United States leading the world in the cumulative number of patents for semiconductor devices.

Outlook, opportunities and challenges

The white paper highlights that the rapid rise of China’s research output and patent applications has painted a rosy picture for the development of Chinese nanoscience, and in both the traditionally strong subjects and newly emerging areas, Chinese nanoscience shows great potential.

Several interviewed experts in the survey identify catalysis and catalytic nanomaterials as the most promising nanoscience area for China. The use of nanotechnology in the energy and medical sectors was also considered very promising.

Some of the interviewed experts commented that the industrial impact of China’s nanotechnology is limited and there is still a gap between nanoscience research and the industrialization of nanotechnologies. Therefore, they recommended that the government invest more in applied research to drive the translation of nanoscience research and find ways to encourage enterprises to invest more in R&D.

As more and more young scientists enter the field, the competition for research funding is becoming more intense. However, this increasing competition for funding was not found to concern most interviewed young scientists, rather, they emphasized that the soft environment is more important. They recommended establishing channels that allow the suggestions or creative ideas of the young to be heard. Also, some interviewed young researchers commented that they felt that the current evaluation system was geared towards past achievements or favoured overseas experience, and recommended the development of an improved talent selection mechanism to ensure a sustainable growth of China’s nanoscience.

I have taken a look at the white paper and found it to be well written. It also provides a brief but thorough history of nanotechnology/nanoscience even adding a bit of historical information that was new to me. As for the rest of the white paper, it relies on bibliometrics (number of published papers and number of citations) and number of patents filed to lay the groundwork for claiming Chinese leadership in nanotechnology. As I’ve stated many times before, these are problematic measures but as far as I can determine they are almost the only ones we have. Frankly, as a Canadian, it doesn’t much matter to me since Canada no matter how you slice or dice it is always in a lower tier relative to science leadership in major fields. It’s the Americans who might feel inclined to debate leadership with regard to nanotechnology and other major fields and I leave it to to US commentators to take up the cudgels should they be inclined. The big bonuses here are the history, the glimpse into the Chinese perspective on the field of nanotechnology/nanoscience, and the analysis of weaknesses and strengths.

Coming up fast on Google and Amazon

A November 16, 2017 article by Christina Bonnington for Slate explores the possibility that a Chinese tech giant, Baidu,  will provide Google and Amazon serious competition in their quests to dominate world markets (Note: Links have been removed,

raven_h
The company took a playful approach to the form—but it has functional reasons for the design, too. Baidu

 

One of the most interesting companies in tech right now isn’t based in Palo Alto, or San Francisco, or Seattle. Baidu, a Chinese company with headquarters in Beijing, is taking on America’s biggest and most innovative tech titans—with style.

Baidu, a titan in its own right, leapt onto the scene as a competitor to Google in the search engine space. Since then, the company, largely underappreciated here in the U.S., has focused on beefing up its artificial intelligence efforts. Former AI chief Andrew Ng, upon leaving the company in March, credited Baidu’s CEO Robin Li on being one of the first technology leaders to fully appreciate the value of deep learning. Baidu now has a 1,300 person AI group, and that investment in AI has helped the company catch up to older, more established companies like Google and Amazon—both in emerging spaces, such as autonomous vehicles, and in consumer tech, as its latest announcement shows.

On Thursday [November 16, 2017], Baidu debuted its entrants to the popular virtual assistant space: a connected speaker and two robots. Baidu aims for the speaker to compete against options such as Amazon’s Echo line, Google Home, and Apple HomePod. Inside, the $256 device will utilize Baidu’s DuerOS conversational artificial intelligence platform, which is already used in more than 100 different smart home brands’ products. DuerOS will let you use your voice to do things like ask the speaker for information, play music, or hail a cab. Called the Raven H, the speaker includes high-end audio components from Tymphany and a unique design jointly created by acquired startup Raven Tech and Swedish consumer electronics company Teenage Engineering.

While the focus is on exciting new technology products from Baidu, the subtext, such as it is, suggests US companies had best keep an eye on its Chinese competitor(s).

Dutch/Chinese partnership to produce nanoparticles at the touch of a button

Now back to China and nanotechnology leadership and the production of nanoparticles. This announcement was made in a November 17, 2017 news item on Azonano,

Delft University of Technology [Netherlands] spin-off VSPARTICLE enters the booming Chinese market with a radical technology that allows researchers to produce nanoparticles at the push of a button. VSPARTICLE’s nanoparticle generator uses atoms, the worlds’ smallest building blocks, to provide a controllable source of nanoparticles. The start-up from Delft signed a distribution agreement with Bio-Sun to make their VSP-G1 nanoparticle generator available in China.

A November 16, 2017 VSPARTICLE press release, which originated the news item,

“We are honoured to cooperate with VSPARTICLE and bring the innovative VSP-G1 nanoparticle generator into the Chinese market. The VSP-G1 will create new possibilities for researchers in catalysis, aerosol, healthcare and electronics,” says Yinghui Cai, CEO of Bio-Sun.

With an exponential growth in nanoparticle research in the last decade, China is one of the leading countries in the field of nanotechnology and its applications. Vincent Laban, CFO of VSPARTICLE, explains: “Due to its immense investments in IOT, sensors, semiconductor technology, renewable energy and healthcare applications, China will eventually become one of our biggest markets. The collaboration with Bio-Sun offers a valuable opportunity to enter the Chinese market at exactly the right time.”

NANOPARTICLES ARE THE BUILDING BLOCKS OF THE FUTURE

Increasingly, scientists are focusing on nanoparticles as a key technology in enabling the transition to a sustainable future. Nanoparticles are used to make new types of sensors and smart electronics; provide new imaging and treatment possibilities in healthcare; and reduce harmful waste in chemical processes.

CURRENT RESEARCH TOOLKIT LACKS A FAST WAY FOR MAKING SPECIFIC BUILDING BLOCKS

With the latest tools in nanotechnology, researchers are exploring the possibilities of building novel materials. This is, however, a trial-and-error method. Getting the right nanoparticles often is a slow struggle, as most production methods take a substantial amount of effort and time to develop.

VSPARTICLE’S VSP-G1 NANOPARTICLE GENERATOR

With the VSP-G1 nanoparticle generator, VSPARTICLE makes the production of nanoparticles as easy as pushing a button. . Easy and fast iterations enable researchers to fast forward their research cycle, and verify their hypotheses.

VSPARTICLE

Born out of the research labs of Delft University of Technology, with over 20 years of experience in the synthesis of aerosol, VSPARTICLE believes there is a whole new world of possibilities and materials at the nanoscale. The company was founded in 2014 and has an international sales network in Europe, Japan and China.

BIO-SUN

Bio-Sun was founded in Beijing in 2010 and is a leader in promoting nanotechnology and biotechnology instruments in China. It serves many renowned customers in life science, drug discovery and material science. Bio-Sun has four branch offices in Qingdao, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Wuhan City, and a nationwide sale network.

That’s all folks!

Accelerated healing of the tissue in the blood-brain barrier with gelatin

It’s been a few years since my last brain and gelatin story (Dec. 24, 2014 posting: Gelatin nanoparticles for drug delivery after stroke) and this time they’re trying to make brain surgery easier and to reduce any attendant brain damage according to a Nov. 6, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily,

Researchers already know that gelatin-covered electrode implants cause less damage to brain tissue than electrodes with no gelatin coating. Researchers at the Neuronano Research Centre (NRC) at Lund University in Sweden have now shown that microglia, the brain’s cleansing cells, and the enzymes that the cells use in the cleaning process, change in the presence of gelatin.

“Knowledge about the beneficial effects of gelatin could be significant for brain surgery, but also in the development of brain implants,” say the researchers behind the study.

Our brains are surrounded by a blood brain barrier which protects the brain from harmful substances that could enter it via the bloodstream. When the barrier is penetrated, as in the case of biopsy or brain surgery for example, leaks can occur and cause serious inflammation. Researchers at the NRC have previously shown that gelatin accelerates brain tissue healing and reduces damage to nerve cells in the case of electrode implants, but only now are they starting to understand how.

A November 6, 2017 Lund University press release, which originated the news item, provides more details,

The researchers used sedated rats to investigate how the brain is repaired after an injury. Gelatin-coated needles were used in one group, and needles without gelatin in the other.

“The use of gelatin-coated needles reduced or eliminated the leakage of molecules (which normally don’t get through) through the blood brain barrier within twenty-four hours. Without gelatin, the leakage continued for up to three days”, says Lucas Kumosa, one of the researchers behind the study, which was recently published in the research journal Acta Biomaterialia.

Gelatin

The images in the left-hand column show the healing of an injury caused by a stainless steel needle. The images in the right-hand column show what the process looked like when the researchers used a gelatin-coated needle. Gelatin accelerated the healing process and reduced the leakage of blood-borne molecules capable of passing through the blood brain barrier into the brain and causing inflammation.

FEWER INFLAMMATORY CLEANING CELLS

When there is an injury to the brain, microglial cells – the brain’s cleaning cells – gather at the site. They clean up, but can also damage the nerve cell tissue through enzymes they release. In their study, the researchers observed a change in which cleaning cells moved towards the injury site.

“When we used gelatin, we saw only a small number of the inflammatory microglial cells. Instead, we observed cells of a different kind, that are anti-inflammatory, which we believe could be significant in accelerating healing”, explains Lucas Kumosa.

The hypothesis is that the potentially damaging enzymes are occupied with the gelatin instead.

“Gelatin is a protein and its decomposition releases amino-acids that we believe could promote the reconstruction of blood vessels and tissue”, explains Jens Schouenborg, professor of neurophysiology at Lund University.

SURGICAL SIGNIFICANCE

Research is currently underway on how electrodes implanted in the brain could be used in the treatment of various diseases, such as epilepsy or Parkinson’s. A major challenge has been to find ways of reducing damage to the area when using such implants.

“Although the research field of brain electrodes is promising, it has been a challenge to find solutions that don’t damage the brain tissue. Knowledge of how injuries heal faster with gelatin could therefore be significant for the development of surgical treatment as well,” says Jens Schouenborg.

The research is funded by the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation, the Swedish Research Council, Lund University and the Sven-Olof Jansons livsverk Foundation.

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

Gelatin promotes rapid restoration of the blood brain barrier after acute brain injury by Lucas S. Kumosa, Valdemar Zetterberg, Jens Schouenborg. Acta Biomaterialia https://doi.org/10.1016/j.actbio.2017.10.020 Available online 14 October 2017

This paper is open access.

Of musical parodies, Despacito, and evolution

What great timing, I just found out about a musical science parody featuring evolution and biology and learned of the latest news about the study of evolution on one of the islands in the Galapagos (where Charles Darwin made some of his observations). Thanks to Stacey Johnson for her November 24, 2017 posting on the Signals blog for featuring Evo-Devo (Despacito Biology Parody), an A Capella Science music video from Tim Blais,

Now, for the latest regarding the Galapagos and evolution (from a November 24, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily),

The arrival 36 years ago of a strange bird to a remote island in the Galapagos archipelago has provided direct genetic evidence of a novel way in which new species arise.

In this week’s issue of the journal Science, researchers from Princeton University and Uppsala University in Sweden report that the newcomer belonging to one species mated with a member of another species resident on the island, giving rise to a new species that today consists of roughly 30 individuals.

The study comes from work conducted on Darwin’s finches, which live on the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific Ocean. The remote location has enabled researchers to study the evolution of biodiversity due to natural selection.

The direct observation of the origin of this new species occurred during field work carried out over the last four decades by B. Rosemary and Peter Grant, two scientists from Princeton, on the small island of Daphne Major.

A November 23, 2017 Princeton University news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, provides more detail,

“The novelty of this study is that we can follow the emergence of new species in the wild,” said B. Rosemary Grant, a senior research biologist, emeritus, and a senior biologist in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. “Through our work on Daphne Major, we were able to observe the pairing up of two birds from different species and then follow what happened to see how speciation occurred.”

In 1981, a graduate student working with the Grants on Daphne Major noticed the newcomer, a male that sang an unusual song and was much larger in body and beak size than the three resident species of birds on the island.

“We didn’t see him fly in from over the sea, but we noticed him shortly after he arrived. He was so different from the other birds that we knew he did not hatch from an egg on Daphne Major,” said Peter Grant, the Class of 1877 Professor of Zoology, Emeritus, and a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, emeritus.

The researchers took a blood sample and released the bird, which later bred with a resident medium ground finch of the species Geospiz fortis, initiating a new lineage. The Grants and their research team followed the new “Big Bird lineage” for six generations, taking blood samples for use in genetic analysis.

In the current study, researchers from Uppsala University analyzed DNA collected from the parent birds and their offspring over the years. The investigators discovered that the original male parent was a large cactus finch of the species Geospiza conirostris from Española island, which is more than 100 kilometers (about 62 miles) to the southeast in the archipelago.

The remarkable distance meant that the male finch was not able to return home to mate with a member of his own species and so chose a mate from among the three species already on Daphne Major. This reproductive isolation is considered a critical step in the development of a new species when two separate species interbreed.

The offspring were also reproductively isolated because their song, which is used to attract mates, was unusual and failed to attract females from the resident species. The offspring also differed from the resident species in beak size and shape, which is a major cue for mate choice. As a result, the offspring mated with members of their own lineage, strengthening the development of the new species.

Researchers previously assumed that the formation of a new species takes a very long time, but in the Big Bird lineage it happened in just two generations, according to observations made by the Grants in the field in combination with the genetic studies.

All 18 species of Darwin’s finches derived from a single ancestral species that colonized the Galápagos about one to two million years ago. The finches have since diversified into different species, and changes in beak shape and size have allowed different species to utilize different food sources on the Galápagos. A critical requirement for speciation to occur through hybridization of two distinct species is that the new lineage must be ecologically competitive — that is, good at competing for food and other resources with the other species — and this has been the case for the Big Bird lineage.

“It is very striking that when we compare the size and shape of the Big Bird beaks with the beak morphologies of the other three species inhabiting Daphne Major, the Big Birds occupy their own niche in the beak morphology space,” said Sangeet Lamichhaney, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University and the first author on the study. “Thus, the combination of gene variants contributed from the two interbreeding species in combination with natural selection led to the evolution of a beak morphology that was competitive and unique.”

The definition of a species has traditionally included the inability to produce fully fertile progeny from interbreeding species, as is the case for the horse and the donkey, for example. However, in recent years it has become clear that some closely related species, which normally avoid breeding with each other, do indeed produce offspring that can pass genes to subsequent generations. The authors of the study have previously reported that there has been a considerable amount of gene flow among species of Darwin’s finches over the last several thousands of years.

One of the most striking aspects of this study is that hybridization between two distinct species led to the development of a new lineage that after only two generations behaved as any other species of Darwin’s finches, explained Leif Andersson, a professor at Uppsala University who is also affiliated with the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and Texas A&M University. “A naturalist who came to Daphne Major without knowing that this lineage arose very recently would have recognized this lineage as one of the four species on the island. This clearly demonstrates the value of long-running field studies,” he said.

It is likely that new lineages like the Big Birds have originated many times during the evolution of Darwin’s finches, according to the authors. The majority of these lineages have gone extinct but some may have led to the evolution of contemporary species. “We have no indication about the long-term survival of the Big Bird lineage, but it has the potential to become a success, and it provides a beautiful example of one way in which speciation occurs,” said Andersson. “Charles Darwin would have been excited to read this paper.”

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

Rapid hybrid speciation in Darwin’s finches by Sangeet Lamichhaney, Fan Han, Matthew T. Webster, Leif Andersson, B. Rosemary Grant, Peter R. Grant. Science 23 Nov 2017: eaao4593 DOI: 10.1126/science.aao4593

This paper is behind a paywall.

Happy weekend! And for those who love their Despacito, there’s this parody featuring three Italians in a small car (thanks again to Stacey Johnson’s blog posting),

Plastic nanoparticles and brain damage in fish

Researchers in Sweden suggest plastic nanoparticles may cause brain damage in fish according to a Sept. 25, 2017 news item on phys.org,

Calculations have shown that 10 per cent of all plastic produced around the world ultimately ends up in the oceans. As a result, a large majority of global marine debris is in fact plastic waste. Human production of plastics is a well-known environmental concern, but few studies have studied the effects of tiny plastic particles, known as nanoplastic particles.

“Our study is the first to show that nanosized plastic particles can accumulate in fish brains”, says Tommy Cedervall, a chemistry researcher at Lund University.

A Sept. 25, 2017 Lund University press release, which originated the news item, provides more detail about the research,

The Lund University researchers studied how nanoplastics may be transported through different organisms in the aquatic ecosystem, i.e. via algae and animal plankton to larger fish. Tiny plastic particles in the water are eaten by animal plankton, which in turn are eaten by fish.

According to Cedervall, the study includes several interesting results on how plastic of different sizes affects aquatic organisms. Most importantly, it provides evidence that nanoplastic particles can indeed cross the blood-brain barrier in fish and thus accumulate inside fish’s brain tissue.

In addition, the researchers involved in the present study have demonstrated the occurrence of behavioural disorders in fish that are affected by nanoplastics. They eat slower and explore their surroundings less. The researchers believe that these behavioural changes may be linked to brain damage caused by the presence of nanoplastics in the brain.

Another result of the study is that animal plankton die when exposed to nanosized plastic particles, while larger plastic particles do not affect them. Overall, these different effects of nanoplastics may have an impact on the ecosystem as a whole.

“It is important to study how plastics affect ecosystems and that nanoplastic particles likely have a more dangerous impact on aquatic ecosystems than larger pieces of plastics”, says Tommy Cedervall.

However, he does not dare to draw the conclusion that plastic nanoparticles could accumulate in other tissues in fish and thus potentially be transmitted to humans through consumption.

“No, we are not aware of any such studies and are therefore very cautious about commenting on it”, says Tommy Cedervall.

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

Brain damage and behavioural disorders in fish induced by plastic nanoparticles delivered through the food chain by Karin Mattsson, Elyse V. Johnson, Anders Malmendal, Sara Linse, Lars-Anders Hansson & Tommy Cedervall. Scientific Reports 7, Article number: 11452 (2017) doi:10.1038/s41598-017-10813-0 Published online: 13 September 2017

This paper is open access.

Substituting graphene and other carbon materials for scarce metals

A Sept. 19, 2017 news item on Nanowerk announces a new paper from the Chalmers University of Technology (Sweden), the lead institution for the Graphene Flagship (a 1B Euro 10 year European Commission programme), Note: A link has been removed,

Scarce metals are found in a wide range of everyday objects around us. They are complicated to extract, difficult to recycle and so rare that several of them have become “conflict minerals” which can promote conflicts and oppression. A survey at Chalmers University of Technology now shows that there are potential technology-based solutions that can replace many of the metals with carbon nanomaterials, such as graphene (Journal of Cleaner Production, “Carbon nanomaterials as potential substitutes for scarce metals”).

They can be found in your computer, in your mobile phone, in almost all other electronic equipment and in many of the plastics around you. Society is highly dependent on scarce metals, and this dependence has many disadvantages.

A Sept. 19, 2017 Chalmers University of Technology press release by Ulrika Ernstrom,, which originated the news item, provides more detail about the possibilities,

They can be found in your computer, in your mobile phone, in many of the plastics around you and in almost all electronic equipment. Society is highly dependent on scarce metals, and this dependence has many disadvantages.
Scarce metals such as tin, silver, tungsten and indium are both rare and difficult to extract since the workable concentrations are very small. This ensures the metals are highly sought after – and their extraction is a breeding ground for conflicts, such as in the Democratic Republic of the Congo where they fund armed conflicts.
In addition, they are difficult to recycle profitably since they are often present in small quantities in various components such as electronics.
Rickard Arvidsson and Björn Sandén, researchers in environmental systems analysis at Chalmers University of Technology, have now examined an alternative solution: substituting carbon nanomaterials for the scarce metals. These substances – the best known of which is graphene – are strong materials with good conductivity, like scarce metals.
“Now technology development has allowed us to make greater use of the common element carbon,” says Sandén. “Today there are many new carbon nanomaterials with similar properties to metals. It’s a welcome new track, and it’s important to invest in both the recycling and substitution of scarce metalsfrom now on.”
The Chalmers researchers have studied  the main applications of 14 different metals, and by reviewing patents and scientific literature have investigated the potential for replacing them by carbon nanomaterials. The results provide a unique overview of research and technology development in the field.
According to Arvidsson and Sandén the summary shows that a shift away from the use of scarce metals to carbon nanomaterials is already taking place.
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“There are potential technology-based solutions for replacing 13 out of the 14 metals by carbon nanomaterials in their most common applications. The technology development is at different stages for different metals and applications, but in some cases such as indium and gallium, the results are very promising,” Arvidsson says.
“This offers hope,” says Sandén. “In the debate on resource constraints, circular economy and society’s handling of materials, the focus has long been on recycling and reuse. Substitution is a potential alternative that has not been explored to the same extent and as the resource issues become more pressing, we now have more tools to work with.”
The research findings were recently published in the Journal of Cleaner Production. Arvidsson and Sandén stress that there are significant potential benefits from reducing the use of scarce metals, and they hope to be able to strengthen the case for more research and development in the field.
“Imagine being able to replace scarce metals with carbon,” Sandén says. “Extracting the carbon from biomass would create a natural cycle.”
“Since carbon is such a common and readily available material, it would also be possible to reduce the conflicts and geopolitical problems associated with these metals,” Arvidsson says.
At the same time they point out that more research is needed in the field in order to deal with any new problems that may arise if the scarce metals are replaced.
“Carbon nanomaterials are only a relatively recent discovery, and so far knowledge is limited about their environmental impact from a life-cycle perspective. But generally there seems to be a potential for a low environmental impact,” Arvidsson says.

FACTS AND MORE INFORMATION

Carbon nanomaterials consist solely or mainly of carbon, and are strong materials with good conductivity. Several scarce metals have similar properties. The metals are found, for example, in cables, thin screens, flame-retardants, corrosion protection and capacitors.
Rickard Arvidsson and Björn Sandén at Chalmers University of Technology have investigated whether the carbon nanomaterials graphene, fullerenes and carbon nanotubes have the potential to replace 14 scarce metals in their main areas of application (see table). They found potential technology-based solutions to replace the metals with carbon nanomaterials for all applications except for gold in jewellery. The metals which we are closest to being able to substitute are indium, gallium, beryllium and silver.

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

Carbon nanomaterials as potential substitutes for scarce metals by Rickard Arvidsson, Björn A. Sandén. Journal of Cleaner Production (0959-6526). Vol. 156 (2017), p. 253-261. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2017.04.048

This paper appears to be open access.