Tag Archives: UCL

Superposition in biological processes

Applying the concept of superposition to photosynthesis and olfaction is not the first thought that would have occurred to me on stumbling across the European Union’s PAPETS project (Phonon-Assisted Processes for Energy Transfer and Sensing). Thankfully, a July 9, 2015 news item on Nanowerk sets the record straight (Note: A link has been removed),

Quantum physics is helping researchers to better understand photosynthesis and olfaction.

Can something be for instance in two different places at the same time? According to quantum physics, it can. More precisely, in line with the principle of ‘superposition’, a particle can be described as being in two different states simultaneously.

While it may sound like voodoo to the non-expert, superposition is based on solid science. Researchers in the PAPETS project are exploring this and other phenomena on the frontier between biology and quantum physics. Their goal is to determine the role of vibrational dynamics in photosynthesis and olfaction.

A July 7, 2015 research news article on the CORDIS website, which originated the news item, further explains (Note: A link has been removed),

Quantum effects in a biological system, namely in a photosynthetic complex, were first observed by Greg Engel and collaborators in 2007, in the USA. These effects were reproduced in different laboratories at a temperature of around -193 degrees Celsius and subsequently at ambient temperature.

‘What’s surprising and exciting is that these quantum effects have been observed in biological complexes, which are large, wet and noisy systems,’ says PAPETS project coordinator, Dr. Yasser Omar, researcher at Instituto de Telecomunicações and professor at Universidade de Lisboa [Portugal]. ‘Superposition is fragile and we would expect it to be destroyed by the environment.’

Superposition contributes to more efficient energy transport. An exciton, a quantum quasi-particle carrying energy, can travel faster along the photosynthetic complex due to the fact that it can exist in two states simultaneously. When it comes to a bifurcation it need not choose left or right. It can proceed down both paths simultaneously.

‘It’s like a maze,’ says Dr. Omar. ‘Only one door leads to the exit but the exciton can probe both left and right at the same time. It’s more efficient.’

Dr. Omar and his colleagues believe that a confluence of factors help superposition to be effected and maintained, namely the dynamics of the vibrating environment, whose role is precisely what the PAPETS project aims to understand and exploit.

Theory and experimentation meet

The theories being explored by PAPETS are also tested in experiments to validate them and gain further insights. To study quantum transport in photosynthesis, for example, researchers shoot fast laser pulses into biological systems. They then observe interference along the transport network, a signature of wavelike phenomena.

‘It’s like dropping stones into a lake,’ explains Dr. Omar. ‘You can then see whether the waves that are generated grow bigger or cancel each other when they meet.’

Applications: more efficient solar cells and odour detection

While PAPETS is essentially an exploratory project, it is generating insights that could have practical applications. PAPETS’ researchers are getting a more fundamental understanding of how photosynthesis works and this could result in the design of much more efficient solar cells.

Olfaction, the capacity to recognise and distinguish different odours, is another promising area. Experiments focus on the behaviour of Drosophila flies. So far, researchers suspect that the tunnelling of electrons associated to the internal vibrations of a molecule may be a signature of odour. Dr. Omar likens this tunnelling to a ping-pong ball resting in a bowl that goes through the side of the bowl to appear outside it.

This work could have applications in the food, water, cosmetics or drugs industries. Better artificial odour sensing could be used to detect impurities or pollution, for example.

‘Unlike seeing, hearing or touching, the sense of smell is difficult to reproduce artificially with high efficacy,’ says Dr. Omar.

The PAPETS project, involving 7 partners, runs from September 2014 to August 2016 and has a budgeted EU contribution funding of EUR 1.8 million.

You can find out more about PAPETS here. In the meantime, I found the other partners in the project (in addition to Portugal), from the PAPETS Partners webpage (Note: Links have been removed),

– Controlled Quantum Dynamics Group, Universität Ulm (UULM), Germany. PI: Martin Plenio and Susana Huelga.
– Biophysics Research Group, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VUA), Netherlands. PI: Rienk van Grondelle and Roberta Croce.
– Department of Chemical Sciences, Università degli Studi di Padova (UNIPD), Italy. PI: Elisabetta Collini.
– Biomedical Sciences Research Centre “Alexander Fleming” (FLEMING), Athens, Greece. PI: Luca Turin and Efthimios M. Skoulakis.
– Biological Physics and Complex Systems Group, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), Orléans, France. PI: Francesco Piazza.
– Quantum Physics of Biomolecular Processes, University College London (UCL), UK. PI: Alexandra Olaya-Castro.

Wilson Center hosts ‘Environmental Information: The Roles of Experts and the Public’ on April 29, 2014

Here’s a description of the Wilson Center event, Environmental Information: The Roles of Experts and the Public,

Access to environmental information and use of it for environmental decision making are central pillars of environmental democracy. Yet, not much attention is paid to the question of who is producing it, and for whom? By examining the history of environmental information, since NEPA in 1969, three eras can be identified: information produced by experts, for experts (1969-1992); information produced by experts, to be shared by experts and the public (1992-2011); and finally, information produced by experts and the public to be shared by experts and the public.

Underlying these are changes in access to information, rise in levels of education and rapid change due to digital technologies. The three eras and their implication to environmental decision making will be explored, with special attention to the role of geographical information and geographical information systems and to citizen science.  [emphasis mine]

Tuesday, April 29th from 10:00 – 11:30am. [EST]

I hope the speaker description and the paper being distributed on the event page mean this may be a bit more interesting to those of us curious about citizen science than is immediately apparent from the event description,

Muki (Mordechai) Haklay

Muki Haklay is a Professor of Geographic Information Science in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering, University College London.  He is also the Director of the UCL Extreme Citizen Science group, which is dedicated to allowing any community, regardless of their literacy, to use scientific methods and tools to collect, analyze and interpret and use information about their area and activities.

His research interests include Public access and use of Environmental Information; Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) and Usability Engineering aspects of GIS; and Societal aspects of GIS use – in particular, participatory mapping and Citizen Science.

Here’s the paper,

Citizen Science and Volunteered Geographic Information – overview and typology of participation

You can RSVP from the event page if you’re planning to attend this event in Washington, DC in person, alternatively you can watch a livestream webcast by returning to the event page on April 29, 2014 at 10 am (that will be 7 am, if you’re on the West Coast),

UK’s National Physical Laboratory reaches out to ‘BioTouch’ MIT and UCL

This March 27, 2014 news item on Azonano is an announcement for a new project featuring haptics and self-assembly,

NPL (UK’s National Physical Laboratory) has started a new strategic research partnership with UCL (University College of London) and MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) focused on haptic-enabled sensing and micromanipulation of biological self-assembly – BioTouch.

The NPL March 27, 2014 news release, which originated the news item, is accompanied by a rather interesting image,

A computer operated dexterous robotic hand holding a microscope slide with a fluorescent human cell (not to scale) embedded into a synthetic extracellular matrix. Courtesy: NPL

A computer operated dexterous
robotic hand holding a microscope
slide with a fluorescent human cell
(not to scale) embedded into a
synthetic extracellular matrix. Courtesy: NPL

The news release goes on to describe the BioTouch project in more detail (Note: A link has been removed),

The project will probe sensing and application of force and related vectors specific to biological self-assembly as a means of synthetic biology and nanoscale construction. The overarching objective is to enable the re-programming of self-assembled patterns and objects by directed micro-to-nano manipulation with compliant robotic haptic control.

This joint venture, funded by the European Research Council, EPSRC and NPL’s Strategic Research Programme, is a rare blend of interdisciplinary research bringing together expertise in robotics, haptics and machine vision with synthetic and cell biology, protein design, and super- and high-resolution microscopy. The research builds on the NPL’s pioneering developments in bioengineering and imaging and world-leading haptics technologies from UCL and MIT.

Haptics is an emerging enabling tool for sensing and manipulation through touch, which holds particular promise for the development of autonomous robots that need to perform human-like functions in unstructured environments. However, the path to all such applications is hampered by the lack of a compliant interface between a predictably assembled biological system and a human user. This research will enable human directed micro-manipulation of experimental biological systems using cutting-edge robotic systems and haptic feedback.

Recently the UK government has announced ‘eight great technologies’ in which Britain is to become a world leader. Robotics, synthetic biology, regenerative medicine and advanced materials are four of these technologies for which this project serves as a merging point providing thus an excellent example of how multidisciplinary collaborative research can shape our future.

If it read this rightly, it means they’re trying to design systems where robots will work directly with materials in the labs while humans direct the robots’ actions from a remote location. My best example of this (it’s not a laboratory example) would be of a surgery where a robot actually performs the work while a human directs the robot’s actions based on haptic (touch) information the human receives from the robot. Surgeons don’t necessarily see what they’re dealing with, they may be feeling it with their fingers (haptic information). In effect, the robot’s hands become an extension of the surgeon’s hands. I imagine using a robot’s ‘hands’ would allow for less invasive procedures to be performed.

Trachea transplants: an update

I got curious the other day about trachea transplants, a topic I first wrote about one an Aug. 22, 2011 posting featuring Andemariam Teklesenbet Beyene and wondered how things had worked out for him. For anyone who doesn’t know the story, ,

In early July 2011, there were reports of a new kind of transplant involving a body part made of a biocomposite. Andemariam Teklesenbet Beyene underwent a trachea transplant that required an artificial windpipe crafted by UK experts then flown to Sweden where Beyene’s stem cells were used to coat the windpipe before being transplanted into his body.

It is an extraordinary story not least because Beyene, a patient in a Swedish hospital planning to return to Eritrea after his PhD studies in Iceland, illustrates the international cooperation that made the transplant possible.

The scaffolding material for the artificial windpipe was developed by Professor Alex Seifalian at the University College London in a landmark piece of nanotechnology-enabled tissue engineering. Tim Harper in his July 25, 2011 posting provides more details about the scaffolding,

A team led by Professor Alexander Seifalian (UCL Division of Surgery & Interventional Science; professor of nanotechnology and regenerative medicine at University College London, UK), whose laboratories are headquartered at the Royal Free Hospital, created a glass mold of the patient’s trachea from X-ray computed tomography (CT) scans of the patient. In CT, digital geometry processing is employed to generate a 3D image of the inside of an object from a large series of 2D X-ray images taken around one single axis of rotation.

Then, they manufactured a full size y-shaped trachea scaffold at Professor Seifalian’s laboratories. The scaffold of the trachea was built using a novel nanocomposite polymer developed and patented by Professor Seifalian. Professor Seifalian worked together with Professor Paolo Macchiarini at Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden (who also holds an Honorary appointment at UCL).

What I didn’t realize in 2011 was there had been some earlier transplants as Gretchen Vogel writes in her April 19, 2013  article (Trachea Transplants Test the Limits) which a summary and critique of the work on synthesized tracheas to date for Science magazine (the article is behind a a paywall),

More than a dozen ill people have received a bioengineered trachea seeded with stem cells during the past 5 years, but outcomes are mixed, and critics say the treatment may not do what its developers claim.

Although at first glance the trachea might seem like a simple tube, its thin but cartilage-reinforced walls must stand up to near-constant use as a person breathes, clears his throat, or coughs. Any transplant, therefore, has to be strong enough to withstand such pressures without collapsing. But a rigid prosthesis can rub against and damage the adjacent major blood vessels in the upper part of the chest, leaving a patient at risk for a fatal hemorrhage. At the same time, the natural blood supply for the trachea’s tissues is intricate, with vessels too small for surgeons to easily reconnect during a transplant operation. And because it is exposed to inhaled air, the wound between the implant and the remaining airway is especially vulnerable to infection.

Surgeons have tried for years to find ways around these challenges, without much success. When Castillo (Claudia Castillo,  first patient to receive a trachea transplant using her own stem cells) was hospitalized in Barcelona in March 2008, Macchiarini [Paolo Macchiarini], who was then at the University of Barcelona’s Hospital Clínic, and Birchall [Martin Birchall], then at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom, had experimented with bioengineered transplants in pigs. They would take a trachea from a pig and remove its living cells to create a so-called decellularized scaffold. They seeded this with cells from the recipient pig: bone marrow cells on the outer layer, thought to help form new cartilage, and epithelial cells on the inside, which they hoped would regrow the trachea’s lining. They allowed the cells to grow on the scaffold for several days in a bioreactor designed to provide different conditions for the two types of cells. They hoped that the decellularized scaffold would not require immunosuppressive drugs to prevent its rejection and that the seeded cells would take over the removed cells’ roles, ultimately forming a living organ.

The main difference between the 2008 Castillo operation and the 2011 Teklesenbet Beyene,operation is the scaffolding. For Castillo, they used a pig trachea where living cells were removed to create a ‘decellularized’ scaffold. For Teklesenbet Beyene, they used a nanocompostie polymer. According to Vogel, 14 people have had the operation using either the decellularized or the nanocomposite composite polymer as the base for a new trachea. There have been some problems and deaths although Castillo who is still alive did not respond to any of Vogel’s requests for a comment . As for Teklesenbet Beyene (from the article),

His current doctor, Tomas Gudbjartsson of Landspitali University Hospital in Reykjavik, tells Science that Beyene has had several stents, but is healthy enough that he was able to complete his studies last year [2012]. The researchers have mentioned other patients in passing in several papers, but no formal reports have been published about their health, and Science has not been able to independently verify the current status of all the patients.

Both Birchall and Macchiarini have received grants for clinical trials,

In March [2013?[, Birchall received a £2.8 million ($4.3 million) grant from the United Kingdom’s Medical Research Council to conduct a trial of decellularized and stem cell–seeded upper trachea and larynx, with roughly 10 patients. Macchiarini has already completed two transplants in Russia as part of a clinical trial—funded with a $6 million grant from the Russian government—that he says should eventually enroll 20 or 25 patients. “We were allowed to do this type of transplantation only in extreme cases,” he says. “The clinical study for the first time gives us a chance to include patients who are not in such critical shape.”

Macchiarini is also the lead investigator on a 5-year, €4 million ($5.2 million) grant from the European Union to begin a clinical trial using decellularized tracheas and further develop the polymer scaffolds in large animal models. That project may need to be reorganized, however, following a legal dispute last year in Italy, where the transplants were supposed to take place—Macchiarini had a part-time position at Careggi Hospital in Florence. In September, however, Italy’s financial police accused him of attempted extortion, and briefly placed him under house arrest, for allegedly telling a patient that he could receive treatment in Germany for €150,000. Macchiarini and his lawyer say that he was simply informing the patient of possible options, not demanding payment. The main charges were soon dropped, but Macchiarini says that the charges stemmed from academic politics in Tuscany and he has severed ties with the hospital and university there. “There is no way to go back there.”

That last bit (in the excerpt) about academic politics in Tuscany seems downright Machiavellian (Wikipedia essay on Machiavelli here).

Getting back to the trachea transplants, there seems to be a major difference of opinion. While the researchers Macchiarini and Birchall have opted for human clinical trials other experts are suggesting that animal trials should be the next step for this research. I recommend reading Vogel’s article so you can fully appreciate the debate.

Surviving 39 minutes at room temperature—recordbreaking for quantum materials

There are two news releases about this work which brings quantum computing a step closer to reality. I’ll start with the Nov. 15, 2013 Simon Fraser University (SFU; located in Vancouver, Canada) news release (Note: A link has been removed),,

An international team of physicists led by Simon Fraser University professor Mike Thewalt has overcome a key barrier to building practical quantum computers, taking a significant step to bringing them into the mainstream.

In their record-breaking experiment conducted on SFU’s Burnaby campus, [part of Metro Vancouver] the scientists were able to get fragile quantum states to survive in a solid material at room temperature for 39 minutes. For the average person, it may not seem like a long time, but it’s a veritable eternity to a quantum physicist.

“This opens up the possibility of truly long-term coherent information storage at room temperature,” explains Thewalt.

Quantum computers promise to significantly outperform today’s machines at certain tasks, by exploiting the strange properties of subatomic particles. Conventional computers process data stored as strings of ones or zeroes, but quantum objects are not constrained to the either/or nature of binary bits.

Instead, each quantum bit – or qubit – can be put into a superposition of both one and zero at the same time, enabling them to perform multiple calculations simultaneously. For instance, this ability to multi-task could allow quantum computers to crack seemingly secure encryption codes.

“A powerful universal quantum computer would change technology in ways that we already understand, and doubtless in ways we do not yet envisage,” says Thewalt, whose research was published in Science today.

“It would have a huge impact on security, code breaking and the transmission and storage of secure information. It would be able to solve problems which are impossible to solve on any conceivable normal computer. It would be able to model the behaviour of quantum systems, a task beyond the reach of normal computers, leading, for example, to the development of new drugs by a deeper understanding of molecular interactions.”

However, the problem with attempts to build these extraordinary number-crunchers is that superposition states are delicate structures that can collapse like a soufflé if nudged by a stray particle, such as an air molecule.

To minimize this unwanted process, physicists often cool their qubit systems to almost absolute zero (-273 C) and manipulate them in a vacuum. But such setups are finicky to maintain and, ultimately, it would be advantageous for quantum computers to operate robustly at everyday temperatures and pressures.

“Our research extends the demonstrated coherence time in a solid at room temperature by a factor of 100 – and at liquid helium temperature by a factor of 60 (from three minutes to three hours),” says Thewalt.

“These are large, significant improvements in what is possible.”

The November 15, 2013 University of Oxford news release (also on EurekAlert), features their own researcher and more information (e.g., the previous record for maintaining coherence of a solid state at room temperature),

An international team including Stephanie Simmons of Oxford University report in this week’s Science a test performed as part of a project led by Mike Thewalt of Simon Fraser University, Canada, and colleagues. …

In the experiment, the team raised the temperature of a system, in which information is encoded in the nuclei of phosphorus atoms in silicon, from -269°C to 25°C and demonstrated that the superposition states survived at this balmy temperature for 39 minutes – outside of silicon the previous record for such a state’s survival at room temperature was around two seconds. [emphasis mine] The team even found that they could manipulate the qubits as the temperature of the system rose, and that they were robust enough for this information to survive being ‘refrozen’ (the optical technique used to read the qubits only works at very low temperatures).

‘Thirty-nine minutes may not seem very long but as it only takes one-hundred-thousandth of a second to flip the nuclear spin of a phosphorus ion – the type of operation used to run quantum calculations – in theory over two million operations could be applied in the time it takes for the superposition to naturally decay by 1%. Having such robust, as well as long-lived, qubits could prove very helpful for anyone trying to build a quantum computer,’ said Stephanie Simmons of Oxford University’s Department of Materials, an author of the paper.

The team began with a sliver of silicon doped with small amounts of other elements, including phosphorus. Quantum information was encoded in the nuclei of the phosphorus atoms: each nucleus has an intrinsic quantum property called ‘spin’, which acts like a tiny bar magnet when placed in a magnetic field. Spins can be manipulated to point up (0), down (1), or any angle in between, representing a superposition of the two other states.

The team prepared their sample at just 4°C above absolute zero (-269°C) and placed it in a magnetic field. Additional magnetic field pulses were used to tilt the direction of the nuclear spin and create the superposition states. When the sample was held at this cryogenic temperature, the nuclear spins of about 37% of the ions – a typical benchmark to measure quantum coherence – remained in their superposition state for three hours. The same fraction survived for 39 minutes when the temperature of the system was raised to 25°C.

There is still some work ahead before the team can carry out large-scale quantum computations. The nuclear spins of the 10 billion or so phosphorus ions used in this experiment were all placed in the same quantum state. To run calculations, however, physicists will need to place different qubits in different states. ‘To have them controllably talking to one another – that would address the last big remaining challenge,’ said Simmons.

Even for the uninitiated, going from a record of two seconds to 39 minutes has to raise an eyebrow.

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

Room-Temperature Quantum Bit Storage Exceeding 39 Minutes Using Ionized Donors in Silicon-28.by Kamyar Saeedi, Stephanie Simmons, Jeff Z. Salvail, Phillip Dluhy, Helge Riemann, Nikolai V. Abrosimov, Peter Becker, Hans-Joachim Pohl, John J. L. Morton, & Mike L. W. Thewalt.  Science 15 November 2013: Vol. 342 no. 6160 pp. 830-833 DOI: 10.1126/science.1239584

This paper is behind a paywall.

ETA Nov. 18 ,2013:  The University College of London has also issued a Nov. 15, 2013 news release on EurekAlert about this work. While some of this is repetitive, I think there’s enough new information to make this excerpt worthwhile,

The team even found that they could manipulate the qubits as the temperature of the system rose, and that they were robust enough for this information to survive being ‘refrozen’ (the optical technique used to read the qubits only works at very low temperatures). 39 minutes may not sound particularly long, but since it only takes a tiny fraction of a second to run quantum computations by flipping the spin of phosphorus ions (electrically charged phosphorus atoms), many millions of operations could be carried out before a system like this decays.

“This opens up the possibility of truly long-term coherent information storage at room temperature,” said Mike Thewalt (Simon Fraser University), the lead researcher in this study.

The team began with a sliver of silicon doped with small amounts of other elements, including phosphorus. They then encoded quantum information in the nuclei of the phosphorus atoms: each nucleus has an intrinsic quantum property called ‘spin’, which acts like a tiny bar magnet when placed in a magnetic field. Spins can be manipulated to point up (0), down (1), or any angle in between, representing a superposition of the two other states.

The team prepared their sample at -269 °C, just 4 degrees above absolute zero, and placed it in a magnetic field. They used additional magnetic field pulses to tilt the direction of the nuclear spin and create the superposition states. When the sample was held at this cryogenic temperature, the nuclear spins of about 37 per cent of the ions – a typical benchmark to measure quantum coherence – remained in their superposition state for three hours. The same fraction survived for 39 minutes when the temperature of the system was raised to 25 °C.


Only for the truly obsessed: a movie featuring gold nanocrystal vibrations

Folks at the London Centre for Nanotechnology (at the University College of London) have released a film made with a pioneering 3D imaging technique that shows how gold nanocrystals vibrate. From the May 23, 2013 news release on EurekAlert,

A billon-frames-per-second film has captured the vibrations of gold nanocrystals in stunning detail for the first time.

The film, which was made using 3D imaging pioneered at the London Centre for Nanotechnology (LCN) at UCL [University College of London], reveals important information about the composition of gold. The findings are published in the journal Science.

Jesse Clark, from the LCN and lead author of the paper said: “Just as the sound quality of a musical instrument can provide great detail about its construction, so too can the vibrations seen in materials provide important information about their composition and functions.”

“It is absolutely amazing that we are able to capture snapshots of these nanoscale motions and create movies of these processes. This information is crucial to understanding the response of materials after perturbation. “

Caption: The acoustic phonons can be visualized on the surface as regions of contraction (blue) and expansion (red). Also shown are two-dimensional images comparing the experimental results with theory and molecular dynamics simulation. The scale bar is 100 nanometers. Credit: Jesse Clark/UCL

Caption: The acoustic phonons can be visualized on the surface as regions of contraction (blue) and expansion (red). Also shown are two-dimensional images comparing the experimental results with theory and molecular dynamics simulation. The scale bar is 100 nanometers. Credit: Jesse Clark/UCL

Here are more details from the news release,

Scientists found that the vibrations were unusual because they start off at exactly the same moment everywhere inside the crystal. It was previously expected that the effects of the excitation would travel across the gold nanocrystal at the speed of sound, but they were found to be much faster, i.e., supersonic.

The new images support theoretical models for light interaction with metals, where energy is first transferred to electrons, which are able to short-circuit the much slower motion of the atoms.

The team carried out the experiments at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory using a revolutionary X-ray laser called the “Linac Coherent Light Source”. The pulses of X-rays are extremely short (measured in femtoseconds, or quadrillionths of a second), meaning they are able to freeze all motion of the atoms in any sample, leaving only the electrons still moving.

However, the X-ray pulses are intense enough that the team was able to take single snapshots of the vibrations of the gold nanocrystals they were examining. The vibration was started with a short pulse of infrared light.

The real keeners can watch the movie if they click on the link to the May 23, 2013 news release on EurekAlert.

The team developing this movie was international in scope (from the news release),

The research team included contributors from UCL, University of Oxford, SLAC, Argonne National Laboratory [US] and LaTrobe University, Australia.

The yin and the yang of carbon nanotubes and toxicity


Illustration courtesy of the University College of London (UCL). Downloaded from http://www.ucl.ac.uk/news/news-articles/0113/130115-chemistry-resolves-toxic-concerns-about-carbon-nanotubes

Illustration courtesy of the University College of London (UCL). Downloaded from http://www.ucl.ac.uk/news/news-articles/0113/130115-chemistry-resolves-toxic-concerns-about-carbon-nanotubes

Researchers at the University College of London (UCL), France’s Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS), and Italy’s University of Trieste have determined that carbon nanotube toxicity issues can be addressed be reducing their length and treating them chemically. From the Jan. 15,2013 news item on ScienceDaily,

In a new study, published January 15 [2013] in the journal Angewandte Chemie, evidence is provided that the asbestos-like reactivity and pathogenicity reported for long, pristine nanotubes can be completely alleviated if their surface is modified and their effective length is reduced as a result of chemical treatment.

First atomically described in the 1990s, carbon nanotubes are sheets of carbon atoms rolled up into hollow tubes just a few nanometres in diameter. Engineered carbon nanotubes can be chemically modified, with the addition of chemotherapeutic drugs, fluorescent tags or nucleic acids — opening up applications in cancer and gene therapy.

Furthermore, these chemically modified carbon nanotubes can pierce the cell membrane, acting as a kind of ‘nano-needle’, allowing the possibility of efficient transport of therapeutic and diagnostic agents directly into the cytoplasm of cells.

Among their downsides however, have been concerns about their safety profile. One of the most serious concerns, highlighted in 2008, involves the carcinogenic risk from the exposure and persistence of such fibres in the body. Some studies indicate that when long untreated carbon nanotubes are injected to the abdominal cavity of mice they can induce unwanted responses resembling those associated with exposure to certain asbestos fibres.

In this paper, the authors describe two different reactions which ask if any chemical modification can render the nanotubes non-toxic. They conclude that not all chemical treatments alleviate the toxicity risks associated with the material. Only those reactions that are able to render carbon nanotubes short and stably suspended in biological fluids without aggregation are able to result in safe, risk-free material.

Here’s a citation and link for this latest  research, from the ScienceDaily news item where you can also read the lead researcher’s comments about carbon nanotubes, safety, and unreasonable proposals to halt production,

Hanene Ali-Boucetta, Antonio Nunes, Raquel Sainz, M. Antonia Herrero, Bowen Tian, Maurizio Prato, Alberto Bianco, Kostas Kostarelos. Asbestos-like Pathogenicity of Long Carbon Nanotubes Alleviated by Chemical Functionalization. Angewandte Chemie International Edition, 2013; DOI: 10.1002/anie.201207664

The article is behind a paywall. I have mentioned long carbon nanotubes and their resemblance to asbestos fibres in several posts. The  Oct. 26, 2009 posting [scroll down about 1/3 of the way] highlights research which took place after the study where mice had carbon nanotubes injected into their bellies; in this second piece of research they inhaled the nanotubes.

ETA Jan. 21, 2013: Dexter Johnson gives context and commentary about this latest research into long multiwalled nanotubes (MWNTs) which he sums up as the answer to this question “What if you kept the MWNTs short?”  in a Jan. 18, 2013 posting on his Nanoclast blog (on the IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] website)

COllaborative Network for Training in Electronic Skin Technology (CONTEST) looking for twelve researchers

The CONTEST (COllaborative Network for Training in Electronic Skin TechnologyCOllaborative Network for Training in Electronic Skin Technology) project was launched today in Italy. According to the Aug. 21, 2012 news item on Nanowerk,

“Flexible electronics” is one of the most significant challenges in the field of future electronics. The possibility of realizing flexible and bendable electronic circuits, that can be rolled up, twisted or inserted in films around objects, would introduce a range of infinite applications in multiple fields, including healthcare, robotics and energy.

In this area, the Fondazione Bruno Kessler of Trento will coordinate the CONTEST project (COllaborative Network for Training in Electronic Skin Technology), an Initial Training Network (ITN) Marie Curie project funded by the European Commission involving European research, academic and business players. These include seven full partners (Fondazione Bruno Kessler, Italy; ST Microelectronics, Italy; Technical University Munich, Germany; Fraunhofer EMFT, Germany; University College London, UK; Imperial College London, UK; and Shadow Robotics Company, UK) and two associate partners (University of Cambridge, UK, and University of Tokyo, Japan).

The CONTEST project page at the Fondazione Bruno Kessler website offers more details,

At the heart of the CONTEST programme lies the multidisciplinary research training of young researchers. The CONTEST network will recruit twelve excellent Early-Stage Researchers (e.g. PhD students) and two Experienced Researchers (e.g. Post-Doc fellows). Information for submitting applications is available at the project’s website: http://www.contest-itn.eu/.
CONTEST activities will be coordinated by Ravinder S. Dahiya, researcher at the Bio-MEMS Unit (BIO-Micro-Electro-Mechanical-Systems) of  the Center for Materials and Microsystems (Fondazione Bruno Kessler) and by Leandro Lorenzelli, head of the Bio-MEMS Unit.
“The disruptive flexible electronics technology – says Ravinder S. Dahiya – will create change and improve the electronic market landscape and usher in a new revolution in multifunctional electronics. It will transform to an unprecedented degree our view of electronics and how we, as a society, interact with intelligent and responsive systems.”
“The investigation, in a very multidisciplinary framework, of technological approaches for thin flexible components – explains Leandro Lorenzelli – will generate new paradigms and concepts for microelectronic devices and systems with new functionalities tailored to the needs of a wide range of applications including robotics, biomedical instrumentations and smart cities.”

Here’s more about the 12 researchers they’re recruiting, excerpted from the Job Openings page on the CONTEST project website (Note: I have removed some links),

We have been awarded a large interdisciplinary project on electronic skin and applications, called CONTEST (COllaborative Network for Training in Electronic Skin Technology). We are therefore looking for 12 excellent Early-Stage Researchers (e.g. PhD students) and 2 Experienced Researchers (e.g. Post-Doc), associated to:

  • Fondazione Bruno Kessler, Trento, Italy (2 Early-Stage Researcher positions on silicon based flexible sensors (e.g. touch sensors), electronic circuits and 1 Experienced Researcher position on system integration)  …,
  • ST Microelectronics, Catania, Italy (2 Early-Stage Researcher positions on chemical/physical sensors on flexible substrates, and metal patterned substrates for integrating flexible sensing elements)…,
  • Technical University Munich, Germany (3 Early-Stage Researcher positions on organic semiconductor based electronics devices and circuits, modeling of flexible devices and sensors … , and artificial skin in humanoids…,
  • Fraunhofer EMFT, Munich, Germany (1 Early-Stage Researcher position on assembly on film substrates and foil integration as well as 1 Experienced Researcher position on reliability and ESD issues of components during flex integration) … ,
  • University College London, UK (2 Early-Stage Researcher positions on organic semiconductor based interconnects, solutions processed sensors, alternative on-skin energy schemes, patterning of e-skin and stretchable interconnects using blends of graphene in polymeric materials …
  • Imperial College London, UK (1 Early-Stage Researcher position on human sensori-motor control and robotics) …, and
  • Shadow Robotics Company, UK (1 Early-Stage Researcher position on biorobotics and mechatronics) ….

Mobility rules apply to all these positions. Researchers can be of any nationality. They are required to undertake trans-national mobility (i.e. move from one country to another) when taking up their appointment. One general rule applies to the appointment of researchers: At the time of recruitment by the host organization, researchers must not have resided or carried out their main activity (work, studies, etc.) in the country of their host organization (i.e. recruiting institute) for more than 12 months in the 3 years immediately prior to the reference date. Short stays such as holidays and/or compulsory national service are not taken into account.

Good luck to all who apply! Priority will be given to applications received by Sept. 30, 2012.

Sniffing old books

I don’t know if it’s nano but this story about old books and their smell ‘speaks’ to me. Thanks to GrrlScientist for her May 1, 2012 posting about this interesting work on degradomics,

Every time I catch a whiff of that special old books smell, I am transported through time and space to the cool welcoming basement of The Strand Bookstore in New York City, where I spent many hot humid summer afternoons, searching for some used book I’ve never seen nor even heard of, or sitting on the cold concrete floor, reading. The smell of old books isn’t pleasant, exactly, but it is unmistakable — and powerfully evocative.

“A combination of grassy notes with a tang of acids and a hint of vanilla over an underlying mustiness,” writes an international team of chemists from University College London (UCL) and the University of Ljubljana (UL) in Slovenia in their scientific paper ([Material Degradomics: On the Smell of Old Books] doi:10.1021/ac9016049 [this paper is behind a paywall despite the fact the paper was published in 2009]).

Here’s an entertaining video about this work,

Not all old books are deteriorating and expelling gases. There are some very old books that are in pretty good condition. The problem arises with the paper production techniques of the 19th and 20th centuries. We put a lot of acid in our papers and that’s what’s breaking down the material. From GrrlScientist’s May 1, 2012 posting,

The one factor that speeds a book’s death more rapidly than any other is acidity: paper that is too acidic significantly decreases a book’s lifespan. These papers are cheap and easy to mass produce. This explains why a newspaper clipping left in the pages of a book creates an ugly orange-brown stain on the book’s pages. But books have also been printed on acidic paper. Many of the books now crowding onto shelves in used bookstores were published in the 19th and 20th centuries; yellowing books with brown spots and crackling bindings that were mass printed on cheap paper that was too acidic. These books are aging rapidly whilst much older books are still in good shape because the paper they were printed on was much purer.

The paper’s lead author, Matija Strlič, is a senior lecturer at the University College of London (UCL) and he has a research interest that I did not realize existed, Heritage Smells,

Research interests span multi-disciplinary research linked to cultural heritage. The focus of these efforts are the development of new scientific tools and methods of study of heritage materials, collections and their interactions with the environment. Among the pioneering contributions are the development of degradomics, use of Near Infrared Spectrometry with chemometric data analysis in heritage science, use of chemiluminometry for studies of degradation of organic heritage materials, and studies of emission and absorption of volatile degradation products in heritage collections. My current research interests include development and use of damage functions and integrated modeling of heritage collections.

Presently, Matija Strlic is the Principal Investigator of the UK AHRC/EPSRC Science and Heritage Programme project Collections Demography (2010-2013) and a Co-Investigator on Heritage Smells! (2010-2013).  He is also involved in  several other projects, including the EU projects POPART (2009-2012, “Preservation of plastic artefacts in museum collections”) and TEACH (2009-2011, “Technologies and tools to prioritize assessment and diagnosis of air pollution impact on immovable and movable cultural heritage”), and UK Technology Strategy Board-funded project Heritage Intelligence (2009-2011).
In the past few years he has been  involved in other large collaborative projects: coordination of SurveNIR (2005-2008, “Near Infrared Tool for Collection Surveying”), scientific coordination of Papylum (2001-2004, “Chemiluminescence – a novel tool in paper conservation studies”), and participation in PaperTreat (2005-2008, “Evaluation of mass deacidification processes”), InkCor (2002-2005, “Stabilisation of iron-gall ink containing paper”) and MIP (2002-2005, “Metals in paper”). He co-coordinated the 8th European Conference on Research for Protection, Conservation and Enhancement of Cultural Heritage, Ljubljana, Slovenia, 10-13 November 2008.

Our paper is crumbling, eh? That means song sheets with the notations from composers such as Beethoven, etc.; original editions of important books of literature and nonfiction; drawings and prints by important artists; and scientific and other research papers; in other words,  historical documents of all kinds will be disappearing unless researchers can find a solution to the problem.