Tag Archives: Switzerland

A study in contrasts: innovation and education strategies in US and British Columbia (Canada)

It’s always interesting to contrast two approaches to the same issue, in this case, innovation and education strategies designed to improve the economies of the United States and of British Columbia, a province in Canada.

One of the major differences regarding education in the US and in Canada is that the Canadian federal government, unlike the US federal government, has no jurisdiction over the matter. Education is strictly a provincial responsibility.

I recently wrote a commentary (a Jan. 19, 2016 posting) about the BC government’s Jan. 18, 2016 announcement of its innovation strategy in a special emphasis on the education aspect. Premier Christy Clark focused largely on the notion of embedding courses on computer coding in schools from K-12 (kindergarten through grade 12) as Jonathon Narvey noted in his Jan. 19, 2016 event recap for Betakit,

While many in the tech sector will be focused on the short-term benefits of a quick injection of large capital [a $100M BC Tech Fund as part of a new strategy was announced in Dec. 2015 but details about the new #BCTECH Strategy were not shared until Jan. 18, 2016], the long-term benefits for the local tech sector are being seeded in local schools. More than 600,000 BC students will be getting basic skills in the K-12 curriculum, with coding academies, more work experience electives and partnerships between high school and post-secondary institutions.

Here’s what I had to say in my commentary (from the Jan. 19, 2016 posting),

… the government wants to embed  computer coding into the education system for K-12 (kindergarten to grade 12). One determined reporter (Canadian Press if memory serves) attempted to find out how much this would cost. No answer was forthcoming although there were many words expended. Whether this failure was due to ignorance (disturbing!) or a reluctance to share (also disturbing!) was impossible to tell. Another reporter (Georgia Straight) asked about equipment (coding can be taught with pen and paper but hardware is better). … Getting back to the reporter’s question, no answer was forthcoming although the speaker was loquacious.

Another reporter asked if the government had found any jurisdictions doing anything similar regarding computer coding. It seems they did consider other jurisdictions although it was claimed that BC is the first to strike out in this direction. Oddly, no one mentioned Estonia, known in some circles as E-stonia, where the entire school system was online by the late 1990s in an initiative known as the ‘Tiger Leap Foundation’ which also supported computer coding classes in secondary school (there’s more in Tim Mansel’s May 16, 2013 article about Estonia’s then latest initiative to embed computer coding into grade school.) …

Aside from the BC government’s failure to provide details, I am uncomfortable with what I see as an overemphasis on computer coding that suggests a narrow focus on what constitutes a science and technology strategy for education. I find the US approach closer to what I favour although I may be biased since they are building their strategy around nanotechnology education.

The US approach had been announced in dribs and drabs until recently when a Jan. 26, 2016 news item on Nanotechnology Now indicated a broad-based plan for nanotechnology education (and computer coding),

Over the past 15 years, the Federal Government has invested over $22 billion in R&D under the auspices of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) to understand and control matter at the nanoscale and develop applications that benefit society. As these nanotechnology-enabled applications become a part of everyday life, it is important for students to have a basic understanding of material behavior at the nanoscale, and some states have even incorporated nanotechnology concepts into their K-12 science standards. Furthermore, application of the novel properties that exist at the nanoscale, from gecko-inspired climbing gloves and invisibility cloaks, to water-repellent coatings on clothes or cellphones, can spark students’ excitement about science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

An earlier Jan. 25, 2016 White House blog posting by Lisa Friedersdorf and Lloyd Whitman introduced the notion that nanotechnology is viewed as foundational and a springboard for encouraging interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) careers while outlining several formal and information education efforts,

The Administration’s updated Strategy for American Innovation, released in October 2015, identifies nanotechnology as one of the emerging “general-purpose technologies”—a technology that, like the steam engine, electricity, and the Internet, will have a pervasive impact on our economy and our society, with the ability to create entirely new industries, create jobs, and increase productivity. To reap these benefits, we must train our Nation’s students for these high-tech jobs of the future. Fortunately, the multidisciplinary nature of nanotechnology and the unique and fascinating phenomena that occur at the nanoscale mean that nanotechnology is a perfect topic to inspire students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

The Nanotechnology: Super Small Science series [mentioned in my Jan. 21, 2016 posting] is just the latest example of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI)’s efforts to educate and inspire our Nation’s students. Other examples include:

The announcement about computer coding and courses being integrated in the US education curricula K-12 was made in US President Barack Obama’s 2016 State of the Union speech and covered in a Jan. 30, 2016 article by Jessica Hullinger for Fast Company,

In his final State Of The Union address earlier this month, President Obama called for providing hands-on computer science classes for all students to make them “job ready on day one.” Today, he is unveiling how he plans to do that with his upcoming budget.

The President’s Computer Science for All Initiative seeks to provide $4 billion in funding for states and an additional $100 million directly to school districts in a push to provide access to computer science training in K-12 public schools. The money would go toward things like training teachers, providing instructional materials, and getting kids involved in computer science early in elementary and middle school.

There are more details in the Hullinger’s article and in a Jan. 30, 2016 White House blog posting by Megan Smith,

Computer Science for All is the President’s bold new initiative to empower all American students from kindergarten through high school to learn computer science and be equipped with the computational thinking skills they need to be creators in the digital economy, not just consumers, and to be active citizens in our technology-driven world. Our economy is rapidly shifting, and both educators and business leaders are increasingly recognizing that computer science (CS) is a “new basic” skill necessary for economic opportunity and social mobility.

CS for All builds on efforts already being led by parents, teachers, school districts, states, and private sector leaders from across the country.

Nothing says one approach has to be better than the other as there’s usually more than one way to accomplish a set of goals. As well, it’s unfair to expect a provincial government to emulate the federal government of a larger country with more money to spend. I just wish the BC government (a) had shared details such as the budget allotment for their initiative and (b) would hint at a more imaginative, long range view of STEM education.

Going back to Estonia one last time, in addition to the country’s recent introduction of computer coding classes in grade school, it has also embarked on a nanotechnology/nanoscience educational and entrepreneurial programme as noted in my Sept. 30, 2014 posting,

The University of Tartu (Estonia) announced in a Sept. 29, 2014 press release an educational and entrepreneurial programme about nanotechnology/nanoscience for teachers and students,

To bring nanoscience closer to pupils, educational researchers of the University of Tartu decided to implement the European Union LLP Comenius project “Quantum Spin-Off – connecting schools with high-tech research and entrepreneurship”. The objective of the project is to build a kind of a bridge: at one end, pupils can familiarise themselves with modern science, and at the other, experience its application opportunities at high-tech enterprises. “We also wish to inspire these young people to choose a specialisation related to science and technology in the future,” added Lukk [Maarika Lukk, Coordinator of the project].

The pupils can choose between seven topics of nanotechnology: the creation of artificial muscles, microbiological fuel elements, manipulation of nanoparticles, nanoparticles and ionic liquids as oil additives, materials used in regenerative medicine, deposition and 3D-characterisation of atomically designed structures and a topic covered in English, “Artificial robotic fish with EAP elements”.

Learning is based on study modules in the field of nanotechnology. In addition, each team of pupils will read a scientific publication, selected for them by an expert of that particular field. In that way, pupils will develop an understanding of the field and of scientific texts. On the basis of the scientific publication, the pupils prepare their own research project and a business plan suitable for applying the results of the project.

In each field, experts of the University of Tartu will help to understand the topics. Participants will visit a nanotechnology research laboratory and enterprises using nanotechnologies.

The project lasts for two years and it is also implemented in Belgium, Switzerland and Greece.

As they say, time will tell.

Back to the mortar and pestle for perovskite-based photovoltaics

This mechanochemistry (think mortar and pestle) story about perovskite comes from Poland. From a Jan. 14, 2016 Institute of Physical Chemistry of the Polish Academy of Sciences press release (also on EurekAlert but dated Jan. 16, 2016),

Perovskites, substances that perfectly absorb light, are the future of solar energy. The opportunity for their rapid dissemination has just increased thanks to a cheap and environmentally safe method of production of these materials, developed by chemists from Warsaw, Poland. Rather than in solutions at a high temperature, perovskites can now be synthesized by solid-state mechanochemical processes: by grinding powders.

We associate the milling of chemicals less often with progress than with old-fashioned pharmacies and their inherent attributes: the pestle and mortar. [emphasis mine] It’s time to change this! Recent research findings show that by the use of mechanical force, effective chemical transformations take place in solid state. Mechanochemical reactions have been under investigation for many years by the teams of Prof. Janusz Lewinski from the Institute of Physical Chemistry of the Polish Academy of Sciences (IPC PAS) and the Faculty of Chemistry of Warsaw University of Technology. In their latest publication, the Warsaw researchers describe a surprisingly simple and effective method of obtaining perovskites – futuristic photovoltaic materials with a spatially complex crystal structure.

“With the aid of mechanochemistry we are able to synthesize a variety of hybrid inorganic-organic functional materials with a potentially great significance for the energy sector. Our youngest ‘offspring’ are high quality perovskites. These compounds can be used to produce thin light-sensitive layers for high efficiency solar cells,” says Prof. Lewinski.

Perovskites are a large group of materials, characterized by a defined spatial crystalline structure. In nature, the perovskite naturally occurring as a mineral is calcium titanium(IV) oxide CaTiO3. Here the calcium atoms are arranged in the corners of the cube, in the middle of each wall there is an oxygen atom and at the centre of the cube lies a titanium atom. In other types of perovskite the same crystalline structure can be constructed of various organic and inorganic compounds, which means titanium can be replaced by, for example, lead, tin or germanium. As a result, the properties of the perovskite can be adjusted so as to best fit the specific application, for example, in photovoltaics or catalysis, but also in the construction of superconducting electromagnets, high voltage transformers, magnetic refrigerators, magnetic field sensors, or RAM memories.

At first glance, the method of production of perovskites using mechanical force, developed at the IPC PAS, looks a little like magic.

“Two powders are poured into the ball mill: a white one, methylammonium iodide CH3NH3I, and a yellow one, lead iodide PbI2. After several minutes of milling no trace is left of the substrates. Inside the mill there is only a homogeneous black powder: the perovskite CH3NH3PbI3,” explains doctoral student Anna Maria Cieslak (IPC PAS).

“Hour after hour of waiting for the reaction product? Solvents? High temperatures? In our method, all this turns out to be unnecessary! We produce chemical compounds by reactions occurring only in solids at room temperature,” stresses Dr. Daniel Prochowicz (IPC PAS).

The mechanochemically manufactured perovskites were sent to the team of Prof. Michael Graetzel from the Ecole Polytechnique de Lausanne in Switzerland, where they were used to build a new laboratory solar cell. The performance of the cell containing the perovskite with a mechanochemical pedigree proved to be more than 10% greater than a cell’s performance with the same construction, but containing an analogous perovskite obtained by the traditional method, involving solvents.

“The mechanochemical method of synthesis of perovskites is the most environmentally friendly method of producing this class of materials. Simple, efficient and fast, it is ideal for industrial applications. With full responsibility we can state: perovskites are the materials of the future, and mechanochemistry is the future of perovskites,” concludes Prof. Lewinski.

The described research will be developed within GOTSolar collaborative project funded by the European Commission under the Horizon 2020 Future and Emerging Technologies action.

Perovskites are not the only group of three-dimensional materials that has been produced mechanochemically by Prof. Lewinski’s team. In a recent publication the Warsaw researchers showed that by using the milling technique they can also synthesize inorganic-organic microporous MOF (Metal-Organic Framework) materials. The free space inside these materials is the perfect place to store different chemicals, including hydrogen.

This research was published back in August 2015,

Mechanosynthesis of the hybrid perovskite CH3NH3PbI3: characterization and the corresponding solar cell efficiency by D. Prochowicz, M. Franckevičius, A. M. Cieślak, S. M. Zakeeruddin, M. Grätzel and J. Lewiński. J. Mater. Chem. A, 2015,3, 20772-20777 DOI: 10.1039/C5TA04904K First published online 27 Aug 2015

This paper is behind a paywall.

Nanowalls (like waffles) for touchscreens

ETH Zurich has announced a new technique for creating transparent electrodes in a Jan. 6, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily,

Transparent electrodes have been manufactured for use in touchscreens using a novel nanoprinting process. The new electrodes are some of the most transparent and conductive that have ever been developed.

From smartphones to the operating interfaces of ticket machines and cash dispensers, every touchscreen we use requires transparent electrodes: The devices’ glass surface is coated with a barely visible pattern made of conductive material. It is because of this that the devices recognise whether and where exactly a finger is touching the surface.

Here’s an image illustrating the new electrodes,

With a special mode of electrohydrodynamic ink-jet printing scientists can create a grid of ultra fine gold walls. (Visualisations: Ben Newton / Digit Works)

With a special mode of electrohydrodynamic ink-jet printing scientists can create a grid of ultra fine gold walls. (Visualisations: Ben Newton / Digit Works)

I think these electrodes resemble waffles,

[downloaded from https://github.com/jhermann/Stack-O-Waffles] Credit: jherman

[downloaded from https://github.com/jhermann/Stack-O-Waffles] Credit: jherman

Getting back to the electrodes themselves, a Jan. 6, 2016 ETH Zurich press release (also on EurekAlert*)by Fabio Bergamin, which originated the news item, provides more details,

Researchers under the direction of Dimos Poulikakos, Professor of Thermodynamics, have now used 3D print technology to create a new type of transparent electrode, which takes the form of a grid made of gold or silver “nanowalls” on a glass surface. The walls are so thin that they can hardly be seen with the naked eye. It is the first time that scientists have created nanowalls like these using 3D printing. The new electrodes have a higher conductivity and are more transparent than those made of indium tin oxide, the standard material used in smartphones and tablets today. This is a clear advantage: The more transparent the electrodes, the better the screen quality. And the more conductive they are, the more quickly and precisely the touchscreen will work.

Third dimension

“Indium tin oxide is used because the material has a relatively high degree of transparency and the production of thin layers has been well researched, but it is only moderately conductive,” says Patrik Rohner, a PhD student in Poulikakos’ team. In order to produce more conductive electrodes, the ETH researchers opted for gold and silver, which conduct electricity much better. But because these metals are not transparent, the scientists had to make use of the third dimension. ETH professor Poulikakos explains: “If you want to achieve both high conductivity and transparency in wires made from these metals, you have a conflict of objectives. As the cross-sectional area of gold and silver wires grows, the conductivity increases, but the grid’s transparency decreases.”

The solution was to use metal walls only 80 to 500 nanometres thick, which are almost invisible when viewed from above. Because they are two to four times taller than they are wide, the cross-sectional area, and thus the conductivity, is sufficiently high.

Ink-jet printer with tiny print head

The researchers produced these tiny metal walls using a printing process known as Nanodrip, which Poulikakos and his colleagues developed three years ago. Its basic principle is a process called electrohydrodynamic ink-jet printing. In this process scientists use inks made from metal nanoparticles in a solvent; an electrical field draws ultra-small droplets of the metallic ink out of a glass capillary. The solvent evaporates quickly, allowing a three-dimensional structure to be built up drop by drop.

What is special about the Nanodrip process is that the droplets that come out of the glass capillary are about ten times smaller than the aperture itself. This allows for much smaller structures to be printed. “Imagine a water drop hanging from a tap that is turned off. And now imagine that another tiny droplet is hanging from this drop – we are only printing the tiny droplet,” Poulikakos explains. The researchers managed to create this special form of droplet by perfectly balancing the composition of metallic ink and the electromagnetic field used.

Cost-efficient production

The next big challenge will now be to upscale the method and develop the print process further so that it can be implemented on an industrial scale. To achieve this, the scientists are working with colleagues from ETH spin-off company Scrona.

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

Electrohydrodynamic NanoDrip Printing of High Aspect Ratio Metal Grid Transparent Electrodes by Julian Schneider, Patrick Rohner, Deepankur Thureja, Martin Schmid, Patrick Galliker, Dimos Poulikalos. Advanced Functional Materials DOI: 10.1002/adfm.201503705 First published: 15 December 2015

This paper is behind a paywall.

*'(also on EurekAlert)’ added on Jan. 7, 2016.

Breakthrough (science in six episodes on the National Geographic Channel)

US producing partners (television and movies), Ron Howard and Brian Grazer have decided to make science sexy according to the headline for an Oct. 30, 2015 article by Reid Nakamura for The Wrap. Reading the article which has no mention of sexiness reveals the producing partners had something else in mind,

In the era of “too much TV,” Grazer argues that people taking risks is what will help the industry survive. “People just have to make quality programs,” he said in an interview with TheWrap. “Taking chances usually will produce some trend creation that is really valuable to our business.”

Howard added that because “Breakthrough” has the potential to stand out.

“In reality, I don’t really agree that there’s too much, but there’s never enough good stuff that really does break through,” he said. “And it’s getting harder and harder to get fresh ideas, but I think that in all honesty, something like Brian and I coming in and doing this kind of science series offers that potential. Because it’s a different mindset creating this kind of content.”

To date, four episodes have been broadcast (from the Breakthrough episode page on the Internet Movie DataBase [IMDB]),

Fighting Pandemics

Viral outbreaks can become deadly pandemics in a matter of days. To prevent catastrophe, courageous scientists are fighting back with new treatments and vaccines.

More Than Human

Advances in science are fusing biology and technology to make us better, stronger, faster, and smarter; manipulating our genetic code; building exoskeletons that give us super strength; giving hope to people with traumatic spine injuries.

Decoding the Brain

After millennia of speculation about what goes on inside the human brain, we now have the tools to explore its hidden reaches. These tools are leading to research that may help those suffering from afflictions such as epilepsy and Alzheimer’s disease. They are also shedding light on the mystery of consciousness and what makes us who we are.

In recent years, close study of the aging process has opened up new ways that could help us all live healthier for longer. Can we move beyond treating individual diseases, and instead treat the aging process itself? But would a longer life necessarily be a better life? A loose-knit group of researchers believe the real breakthrough is extending our health span – the period of life spent free of disease.

Energy on the Edge

Not yet broadcast

Water Apocalypse

Not yet broadcast

Strangely there is no science advisor listed as part of the crew for these programmes and, even more strangely, the researcher for the series, A. Christine Maxfield, is a travel writer and tv host who seems not to have any science background or previous experience with science programmes.

Once an episode has been broadcast it is possible to view it online afterwards but you do need to be a subscriber. The first three episodes can be found here.

Some of the promotional material seems a bit odd to me. For example, there’s this in the material promoting The Age of Aging episode (broadcast Nov. 29, 2015) directed by Ron Howard and in which he also appears,

… Ron Howard explores the latest scientific studies trying to answer one question. Can aging be cured?

I find the thinking fundamentally disturbing. Aging is not a disease; it’s a process or a series of processes leading to death. If it’s thought of as a disease, then there’s an implication that it can be cured. However, I have no objection to aging as well as possible. On that note, there’s some rather interesting research coming out of Switzerland, from a Dec. 1, 2015 ETZ Zurich press release on EurekAlert,

Researchers at ETH Zurich and the JenAge consortium from Jena have now systematically gone through the genomes of three different organisms in search of the genes associated with the ageing process that are present in all three species – and thus derived from the genes of a common ancestor. Although they are found in different organisms, these so-called orthologous genes are closely related to each other, and they are all found in humans, too.

In order to detect these genes, the researchers examined around 40,000 genes in the nematode C. elegans, zebra fish and mice. By screening them, the scientists wanted to determine which genes are regulated in an identical manner in all three organisms in each comparable ageing stage – young, mature and old; i.e. either are they upregulated or downregulated during ageing.

As a measure of gene activity, the researchers measured the amount of messenger RNA (mRNA) molecules found in the cells of these animals. mRNA is the transcript of a gene and the blueprint of a protein. When there are many copies of an mRNA of a specific gene, it is very active; the gene is upregulated. Fewer mRNA copies, to the contrary, are regarded as a sign of low activity, explains Professor Michael Ristow, coordinating author of the recently published study and Professor of Energy Metabolism at ETH Zurich.

Out of this volume of information, the researchers used statistical models to establish an intersection of genes that were regulated in the same manner in the worms, fish and mice. This showed that the three organisms have only 30 genes in common that significantly influence the ageing process.

Reduce gene activity, live longer

By conducting experiments in which the mRNA of the corresponding genes were selectively blocked, the researchers pinpointed their effect on the ageing process in nematodes. With a dozen of these genes, blocking them extended the lifespan by at least five percent.

One of these genes proved to be particularly influential: the bcat-1 gene. “When we blocked the effect of this gene, it significantly extended the mean lifespan of the nematode by up to 25 percent,” says Ristow.

The researchers were also able to explain how this gene works: the bcat-1 gene carries the code for the enzyme of the same name, which degrades so-called branched-chain amino acids. Naturally occurring in food protein building blocks, these include the amino acids L-leucine, L-isoleucine and L-valine.

When the researchers inhibited the gene activity of bcat-1, the branched-chain amino acids accumulated in the tissue, triggering a molecular signalling cascade that increased longevity in the nematodes. Moreover, the timespan during which the worms remained healthy was extended. As a measure of vitality, the researchers measured the accumulation of ageing pigments, the speed at which the creatures moved, and how often the nematodes successfully reproduced. All of these parameters improved when the scientists inhibited the activity of the bcat-1 gene.

The scientists also achieved a life-extending effect when they mixed the three branched-chain amino acids into the nematodes’ food. However, the effect was generally less pronounced because the bcat-1 gene was still active, which meant that the amino acids continued to be degraded and their life-extending effects could not develop as effectively.

Conserved mechanism

Ristow has no doubt that the same mechanism occurs in humans. “We looked only for the genes that are conserved in evolution and therefore exist in all organisms, including humans,” he says.

In the present study, he and his Jena colleagues from the Leibniz Institute on Aging, the Leibniz Institute for Natural Product Research and Infection Biology, the Jena University Hospital and the Friedrich Schiller University purposefully opted not to study the impact on humans. But a follow-up study is already being planned. “However we cannot measure the life expectancy of humans for obvious reasons,” says the ETH professor. Instead, the researchers plan to incorporate various health parameters such as cholesterol or blood sugar levels in their study to obtain indicators on the health status of their subjects.

Health costs could be massively reduced

Ristow says that the multiple branched-chain amino acids are already being used to treat liver damage and are also added to sport nutrition products. “However, the point is not for people to grow even older, but rather to stay healthy for longer,” [emphasis mine] says the internist. The study will deliver important indicators on how the ageing process could be influenced and how age-related diseases such as diabetes or high blood pressure could be prevented. In light of unfavourable demographics and steadily increasing life expectancy, it is important to extend the healthy life phase and not to reach an even higher age that is characterised by chronic diseases, argue the researchers. With such preventive measures, an elderly person could greatly improve their quality of life while at the same time cutting their healthcare costs by more than half.

” … the point is not for people to grow even older, but rather to stay healthy for longer, ” I couldn’t agree more. Good luck with the gene work.

Finally, the next episode of Breakthrough, Energy on the Edge, is due to be broadcast in the US on Sunday, Dec. 6, 2015 on the National Geographic Channel.

Why Factory publishes book about research on nanotechnology in architecture

The book titled, Barba. Life in the Fully Adaptable Environment, published by nai010 and the Why Factory, a think tank operated by Dutch architectural firm, MVRDV, and Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, is a little difficult to describe.  From a Nov. 16, 2015 MVRDV press release,

Is the end of brick and mortar near? How could nanotechnology change buildings and cities in the future? A speculation of The Why Factory on this topic is illustrated in the best tradition of science fiction in the newly published book Barba. Life in the Fully Adaptable Environment. It forms the point of departure for a series of interactive experiments, installations and proposals towards the development of new, body-based and fully adaptive architectures. A beautiful existential story comes alive. A story closer to us then you’d ever have thought. Imagine a new substance that could be steered and altered in real time. Imagine creating a flexible material that could change its shape, that could shrink and expand, that could do almost anything. The Why Factory calls this fictional material Barba. With Barba, we would be able to adapt our environment to every desire and to every need.

The press release delves into the inspiration for the material and the book,

… The first inspiration came from ‘Barbapapa’, an illustrated cartoon character from the 1970s. Invented and drawn by Talus Taylor and Annette Tison, the friendly, blobby protagonist of the eponymous children’s books and television programme could change his shape to resemble different objects. With Barbapapa’s smooth morphosis in mind, The Why Factory wondered how today’s advancements in robotics, material science and computing might allow us to create environments that transform themselves as easily as Barbapapa could. Neither Barbapapa’s inventors nor anybody else from the team behind the cartoon were involved in this project, but The Why Factory owes them absolute gratitude for the inspiration of Barbapapa.

“Barba is a fantastic matter that does whatever we wish for” says Winy Maas, Professor at The Why Factory and MVRDV co-founder. “You can programme your environment like a computer game. You could wake up in a modernist villa that you transform into a Roman Spa after breakfast. Cities can be totally transformed when offices just disappear after office hours.”

The book moves away from pure speculation, however, and makes steps towards real world application, including illustrated vision, programming experiments and applied prototypes. As co-author of the book, Ulf Hackauf, explains, “We started this book with a vision, which we worked out to form a consistent future scenario. This we took as a point of departure for experiments and speculations, including programming, installations and material research. It eventually led us to prototypes, which could form a first step for making Barba real.”

Barba developed through a series of projects organized by The Why Factory and undertaken in collaboration between Delft University of Technology, ETH Zürich and the European Institute of Innovation and Technology. The research was developed over the course of numerous design studios at the Why Factory and elsewhere. Students and collaborators of the Why Factory have all contributed to the book.

The press release goes on to offer some information about Why Factory,

The Why Factory explores possibilities for the development of our cities by focusing on the production of models and visualisations for cities of the future. Education and research of The Why Factory are combined in a research lab and platform that aims to analyse, theorise and construct future cities. It investigates within the given world and produces future scenarios beyond it; from universal to specific and global to local. It proposes, constructs and envisions hypothetical societies and cities; from science to fiction and vice versa. The Why Factory thus acts as a future world scenario making machinery, engaging in a public debate on architecture and urbanism. Their findings are then communicated to the wider public in a variety of ways, including exhibitions, publications, workshops, and panel discussions.

Based on the Why Factory description, I’m surmising that the book is meant to provoke interactivity in some way. However, there doesn’t seem to be a prescribed means to interact with the Why Factory or the authors (Winy Maas, Ulf Hackauf, Adrien Ravon, and Patrick Healy) so perhaps the book is meant to be a piece of fiction/manual for interested educators, architects, and others who want to create ‘think tank’ environments where people speculate about nanotechnology and architecture.

In any event, you can order the book from this nai010 webpage,

How nanotechnology might drastically change cities and architecture

> New, body-based and fully adaptive architecture
How could nanotechnology change buildings and cities in the future? Imagine a new substance, that could be steered and altered in real time. Imagine …

As for The Why Factory, you can find out more here on the think tank’s About page.

One last comment, in checking out MVRDV, the Dutch architectural firm mentioned earlier as one of The Why Factory’s operating organizations, I came across this piece of news generated as a consequence of the Nov. 13, 2015 Paris bombings,

The Why Factory alumna Emilie Meaud died in Friday’s Paris attacks. Our thoughts are with their family, friends and colleagues.

Nov 17, 2015

To our great horror and shock we received the terrible news that The Why Factory alumna Emilie Meaud (29) died in the Paris attacks of last Friday. She finished her master in Architecture at TU-Delft in 2012 and worked at the Agence Chartier-Dalix. She was killed alongside her twin sister Charlotte. Our thoughts are with their family, friends and colleagues.

Amen.

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.

Global overview of nano-enabled food and agriculture regulation

First off, this post features an open access paper summarizing global regulation of nanotechnology in agriculture and food production. From a Sept. 11, 2015 news item on Nanowerk,

An overview of regulatory solutions worldwide on the use of nanotechnology in food and feed production shows a differing approach: only the EU and Switzerland have nano-specific provisions incorporated in existing legislation, whereas other countries count on non-legally binding guidance and standards for industry. Collaboration among countries across the globe is required to share information and ensure protection for people and the environment, according to the paper …

A Sept. 11, 2015 European Commission Joint Research Centre press release (also on EurekAlert*), which originated the news item, summarizes the paper in more detail (Note: Links have been removed),

The paper “Regulatory aspects of nanotechnology in the agri/feed/food sector in EU and non-EU countries” reviews how potential risks or the safety of nanotechnology are managed in different countries around the world and recognises that this may have implication on the international market of nano-enabled agricultural and food products.

Nanotechnology offers substantial prospects for the development of innovative products and applications in many industrial sectors, including agricultural production, animal feed and treatment, food processing and food contact materials. While some applications are already marketed, many other nano-enabled products are currently under research and development, and may enter the market in the near future. Expected benefits of such products include increased efficacy of agrochemicals through nano-encapsulation, enhanced bioavailability of nutrients or more secure packaging material through microbial nanoparticles.

As with any other regulated product, applicants applying for market approval have to demonstrate the safe use of such new products without posing undue safety risks to the consumer and the environment. Some countries have been more active than others in examining the appropriateness of their regulatory frameworks for dealing with the safety of nanotechnologies. As a consequence, different approaches have been adopted in regulating nano-based products in the agri/feed/food sector.

The analysis shows that the EU along with Switzerland are the only ones which have introduced binding nanomaterial definitions and/or specific provisions for some nanotechnology applications. An example would be the EU labelling requirements for food ingredients in the form of ‘engineered nanomaterials’. Other regions in the world regulate nanomaterials more implicitly mainly by building on non-legally binding guidance and standards for industry.

The overview of existing legislation and guidances published as an open access article in the Journal Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology is based on information gathered by the JRC, RIKILT-Wageningen and the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) through literature research and a dedicated survey.

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

Regulatory aspects of nanotechnology in the agri/feed/food sector in EU and non-EU countries by Valeria Amenta, Karin Aschberger, , Maria Arena, Hans Bouwmeester, Filipa Botelho Moniz, Puck Brandhoff, Stefania Gottardo, Hans J.P. Marvin, Agnieszka Mech, Laia Quiros Pesudo, Hubert Rauscher, Reinhilde Schoonjans, Maria Vittoria Vettori, Stefan Weigel, Ruud J. Peters. Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology Volume 73, Issue 1, October 2015, Pages 463–476 doi:10.1016/j.yrtph.2015.06.016

This is the most inclusive overview I’ve seen yet. The authors cover Asian countries, South America, Africa, and the MIddle East, as well as, the usual suspects in Europe and North America.

Given I’m a Canadian blogger I feel obliged to include their summary of the Canadian situation (Note: Links have been removed),

4.2. Canada

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) and Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), who have recently joined the Health Portfolio of Health Canada, are responsible for food regulation in Canada. No specific regulation for nanotechnology-based food products is available but such products are regulated under the existing legislative and regulatory frameworks.11 In October 2011 Health Canada published a “Policy Statement on Health Canada’s Working Definition for Nanomaterials” (Health Canada, 2011), the document provides a (working) definition of NM which is focused, similarly to the US definition, on the nanoscale dimensions, or on the nanoscale properties/phenomena of the material (see Annex I). For what concerns general chemicals regulation in Canada, the New Substances (NS) program must ensure that new substances, including substances that are at the nano-scale (i.e. NMs), are assessed in order to determine their toxicological profile ( Environment Canada, 2014). The approach applied involves a pre-manufacture and pre-import notification and assessment process. In 2014, the New Substances program published a guidance aimed at increasing clarity on which NMs are subject to assessment in Canada ( Environment Canada, 2014).

Canadian and US regulatory agencies are working towards harmonising the regulatory approaches for NMs under the US-Canada Regulatory Cooperation Council (RCC) Nanotechnology Initiative.12 Canada and the US recently published a Joint Forward Plan where findings and lessons learnt from the RCC Nanotechnology Initiative are discussed (Canada–United States Regulatory Cooperation Council (RCC) 2014).

Based on their summary of the Canadian situation, with which I am familiar, they’ve done a good job of summarizing. Here are a few of the countries whose regulatory instruments have not been mentioned here before (Note: Links have been removed),

In Turkey a national or regional policy for the responsible development of nanotechnology is under development (OECD, 2013b). Nanotechnology is considered as a strategic technological field and at present 32 nanotechnology research centres are working in this field. Turkey participates as an observer in the EFSA Nano Network (Section 3.6) along with other EU candidate countries Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and Montenegro (EFSA, 2012). The Inventory and Control of Chemicals Regulation entered into force in Turkey in 2008, which represents a scale-down version of the REACH Regulation (Bergeson et al. 2010). Moreover, the Ministry of Environment and Urban Planning published a Turkish version of CLP Regulation (known as SEA in Turkish) to enter into force as of 1st June 2016 (Intertek).

The Russian legislation on food safety is based on regulatory documents such as the Sanitary Rules and Regulations (“SanPiN”), but also on national standards (known as “GOST”) and technical regulations (Office of Agricultural Affairs of the USDA, 2009). The Russian policy on nanotechnology in the industrial sector has been defined in some national programmes (e.g. Nanotechnology Industry Development Program) and a Russian Corporation of Nanotechnologies was established in 2007.15 As reported by FAO/WHO (FAO/WHO, 2013), 17 documents which deal with the risk assessment of NMs in the food sector were released within such federal programs. Safe reference levels on nanoparticles impact on the human body were developed and implemented in the sanitary regulation for the nanoforms of silver and titanium dioxide and, single wall carbon nanotubes (FAO/WHO, 2013).

Other countries included in this overview are Brazil, India, Japan, China, Malaysia, Iran, Thailand, Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand, US, South Africa, South Korea, Switzerland, and the countries of the European Union.

*EurekAlert link added Sept. 14, 2015.

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.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and a grant for in vitro nanotoxicity testing

This grant seems to have gotten its start at a workshop held at the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Washington, D.C., Feb. 24-25, 2015 as per this webpage on the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) International Science Consortium Limited website,

The invitation-only workshop included experts from different sectors (government, industry, academia and NGO) and disciplines (in vitro and in vivo inhalation studies of NMs, fibrosis, dosimetry, fluidic models, aerosol engineering, and regulatory assessment). It focused on the technical details for the development and preliminary assessment of the relevance and reliability of an in vitro test to predict the development of pulmonary fibrosis in cells co-cultured at the air-liquid interface following exposure to aerosolized multi-walled carbon nanotubes (MWCNTs). During the workshop, experts made recommendations on cell types, exposure systems, endpoints and dosimetry considerations required to develop the in vitro model for hazard identification of MWCNTs.

The method is intended to be included in a non-animal test battery to reduce and eventually replace the use of animals in studies to assess the inhalation toxicity of engineered NMs. The long-term vision is to develop a battery of in silico and in vitro assays that can be used in an integrated testing strategy, providing comprehensive information on biological endpoints relevant to inhalation exposure to NMs which could be used in the hazard ranking of substances in the risk assessment process.

A September 1, 2015 news item on Azonano provides an update,

The PETA International Science Consortium Ltd. announced today the winners of a $200,000 award for the design of an in vitro test to predict the development of lung fibrosis in humans following exposure to nanomaterials, such as multi-walled carbon nanotubes.

Professor Dr. Barbara Rothen-Rutishauser of the Adolphe Merkle Institute at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland and Professor Dr. Vicki Stone of the School of Life Sciences at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, U.K. will jointly develop the test method. Professor Rothen-Rutishauser co-chairs the BioNanomaterials research group at the Adolphe Merkle Institute, where her research is focused on the study of nanomaterial-cell interactions in the lung using three-dimensional cell models. Professor Vicki Stone is the Director of the Nano Safety Research Group at Heriot-Watt University and the Director of Toxicology for SAFENANO.

The Science Consortium is also funding MatTek Corporation for the development of a three-dimensional reconstructed primary human lung tissue model to be used in Professors Rothen-Rutishauser and Stone’s work. MatTek Corporation has extensive expertise in manufacturing human cell-based, organotypic in vitro models for use in regulatory and basic research applications. The work at MatTek will be led by Dr. Patrick Hayden, Vice President of Scientific Affairs, and Dr. Anna Maione, head of MatTek’s airway models research group.

I was curious about MatTek Corporation and found this on company’s About Us webpage,

MatTek Corporation was founded in 1985 by two chemical engineering professors from MIT. In 1991 the company leveraged its core polymer surface modification technology into the emerging tissue engineering market.

MatTek Corporation is at the forefront of tissue engineering and is a world leader in the production of innovative 3D reconstructed human tissue models. Our skin, ocular, and respiratory tissue models are used in regulatory toxicology (OECD, EU guidelines) and address toxicology and efficacy concerns throughout the cosmetics, chemical, pharmaceutical and household product industries.

EpiDerm™, MatTek’s first 3D human cell based in vitro model, was introduced in 1993 and became an immediate technical and commercial success.

I wish them good luck in their research on developing better ways to test toxicity.

Carrot-based helmets: a nanocellulose commercialization story

NanoCelluComp, a European Commission-funded project, whose name bears a close resemblance to a Scottish company, CelluComp, ended last year (my March 5, 2014 post). Both, NanoCelluComp and CelluComp, were/are involved in research featuring carrots and nanocellulose.

An Aug. 6, 2015 news item on ScienceDaily describes some Swiss/Scottish research into using carrot nanofibers in helmets,

Crackpot idea or recipe for success? This is a question entrepreneurs often face. Is it worth converting the production process to a new, ecologically better material? Empa [Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology or Eidgenössische Materialprüfungs- und Forschungsansta] has developed an analysis method that enables companies to simulate possible scenarios — and therefore avoid bad investments. Here’s an example: Nanofibers made of carrot waste from the production of carrot juice, which can be used to reinforce synthetic parts.

All over the world, research is being conducted into biodegradable and recyclable synthetics. However, fiber-reinforced components remain problematic — if glass or carbon fibers are used. Within the scope of an EU research project, the Scottish company Cellucomp Limited has now developed a method to obtain nanofibers from carrot waste. [emphasis mine] These fibers would be both cost-effective and biodegradable. However, is the method, which works in the lab, also marketable on a large scale?

Here’s a composite image illustrating the notion of a carrot-based helmet,

Motorcycle helmets consist of fiber-reinforced synthetic material. Instead of glass fibers, a biological alternative is now also possible: plant fibers from the production of carrot juice. Empa researchers are now able to analyze whether this kind of production makes sense from an ecological and economical perspective – before money is actually invested in production plants.  Photo: 4ever.eu, composite photo: Empa

Motorcycle helmets consist of fiber-reinforced synthetic material. Instead of glass fibers, a biological alternative is now also possible: plant fibers from the production of carrot juice. Empa researchers are now able to analyze whether this kind of production makes sense from an ecological and economical perspective – before money is actually invested in production plants.
Photo: 4ever.eu, composite photo: Empa

An Aug. 6, 2015 Empa press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more details abut the drive to commercialize this nanocellulose product,

An MPAS (multi-perspective application selection) method developed at Empa helps identify the industrial sectors where new materials might be useful from a technical and economical perspective. At the same time, MPAS also considers the ecological aspect of these new materials. The result for our example: Nanofibers made of carrot waste might be used in the production of motorcycle helmets or side walls for motorhomes in the future.

Three-step analysis

In order to clarify a new material’s market potential, Empa researchers Fabiano Piccinno, Roland Hischier and Claudia Som proceed in three steps for the MPAS method. First of all, the field of possible applications is defined: Which applications come into question based on the technical properties and what categories can they be divided into? Can the new material replace an existing one?

The second step concerns the technical feasibility and market potential: Can the material properties required be achieved with the technical process? Might the product quality vary from one production batch to the next? Can the lab process be upgraded to an industrial scale cost-effectively? Is the material more suited to the low-cost sector or expensive luxury goods? And finally: Does the product meet the legal standards and the customers’ certification needs?

In the third step, the ecological aspect is eventually examined: Is this new material for the products identified really more environmentally friendly – once all the steps from product creation to recycling have been factored in? Which factors particularly need to be considered during production stage to manufacture the material in as environmentally friendly a way as possible?

Industrial production on a five-ton scale – calculated theoretically

The MPAS approach enables individual scenarios for a future production to be calculated with an extremely high degree of accuracy. In the case of the carrot waste nanofibers, for instance, it is crucial whether five tons of fresh carrots or only 209 kilograms of carrot waste (fiber waste from the juicing process) are used as the base material for their production. The issue of whether the solvent is ultimately recycled or burned affects the production costs. And the energy balance depends on how the enzymes that loosen the fibers from the carrots are deactivated. In the lab, this takes place via heat; for production on an industrial level, the use of bleaching agents would be more cost-effective.

Conclusion: six possible applications for “carrot fibers“

For fiber production from carrot waste, the MPAS analysis identified six possible customer segments for the Scottish manufacturer Cellucomp that are worth taking a closer look at: Protective equipment and devices for recreational sport, special vehicles, furniture, luxury consumer goods and industrial manufacturing. The researchers listed the following examples: Motorcycle helmets and surfboards, side walls for motorhomes, dining tables, high-end loudspeaker boxes and product protection mats for marble-working businesses. Similarly detailed analyses can also be conducted for other renewable materials – before a lot of money is actually invested in production plants.

There are other attempts to commercialize nanocellulose (as I understand it, cellulose is one of the most common materials on earth and can be derived from several sources including trees, bananas, pineapples, and more) mentioned in my July 30, 2015 post. I will repeat a question from that post, where are the Canadian research efforts to develop and commercialize nanocellulose? If you have information, please do let me know.