Tag Archives: UK

Art project (autonomous bot purchases illegal goods) seized by Swiss law enforcement

Having just attended a talk on Robotics and Rehabilitation which included a segment on Robo Ethics, news of an art project where an autonomous bot (robot) is set loose on the darknet to purchase goods (not all of them illegal) was fascinating in itself (it was part of an art exhibition which also displayed the proceeds of the darknet activity). But things got more interesting when the exhibit attracted legal scrutiny in the UK and occasioned legal action in Switzerland.

Here’s more from a Jan. 23, 2015 article by Mike Masnick for Techdirt (Note: A link has been removed),

… some London-based Swiss artists, !Mediengruppe Bitnik [(Carmen Weisskopf and Domagoj Smoljo)], presented an exhibition in Zurich of The Darknet: From Memes to Onionland. Specifically, they had programmed a bot with some Bitcoin to randomly buy $100 worth of things each week via a darknet market, like Silk Road (in this case, it was actually Agora). The artists’ focus was more about the nature of dark markets, and whether or not it makes sense to make them illegal:

The pair see parallels between copyright law and drug laws: “You can enforce laws, but what does that mean for society? Trading is something people have always done without regulation, but today it is regulated,” says ays [sic] Weiskopff.

“There have always been darkmarkets in cities, online or offline. These questions need to be explored. But what systems do we have to explore them in? Post Snowden, space for free-thinking online has become limited, and offline is not a lot better.”

Interestingly the bot got excellent service as Mike Power wrote in his Dec. 5, 2014 review of the show. Power also highlights some of the legal, ethical, and moral implications,

The gallery is next door to a police station, but the artists say they are not afraid of legal repercussions of their bot buying illegal goods.

“We are the legal owner of the drugs [the bot purchased 10 ecstasy pills along with a baseball cap, a pair of sneaker/runners/trainers among other items] – we are responsible for everything the bot does, as we executed the code, says Smoljo. “But our lawyer and the Swiss constitution says art in the public interest is allowed to be free.”

The project also aims to explore the ways that trust is built between anonymous participants in a commercial transaction for possibly illegal goods. Perhaps most surprisingly, not one of the 12 deals the robot has made has ended in a scam.

“The markets copied procedures from Amazon and eBay – their rating and feedback system is so interesting,” adds Smojlo. “With such simple tools you can gain trust. The service level was impressive – we had 12 items and everything arrived.”

“There has been no scam, no rip-off, nothing,” says Weiskopff. “One guy could not deliver a handbag the bot ordered, but he then returned the bitcoins to us.”

The exhibition scheduled from Oct. 18, 2014 – Jan. 11, 2015 enjoyed an uninterrupted run but there were concerns in the UK (from the Power article),

A spokesman for the National Crime Agency, which incorporates the National Cyber Crime Unit, was less philosophical, acknowledging that the question of criminal culpability in the case of a randomised software agent making a purchase of an illegal drug was “very unusual”.

“If the purchase is made in Switzerland, then it’s of course potentially subject to Swiss law, on which we couldn’t comment,” said the NCA. “In the UK, it’s obviously illegal to purchase a prohibited drug (such as ecstasy), but any criminal liability would need to assessed on a case-by-case basis.”

Masnick describes the followup,

Apparently, that [case-by[case] assessment has concluded in this case, because right after the exhibit closed in Switzerland, law enforcement showed up to seize stuff …

!Mediengruppe Bitnik  issued a Jan. 15, 2015 press release (Note: Links have been removed),

«Can a robot, or a piece of software, be jailed if it commits a crime? Where does legal culpability lie if code is criminal by design or default? What if a robot buys drugs, weapons, or hacking equipment and has them sent to you, and police intercept the package?» These are some of the questions Mike Power asked when he reviewed the work «Random Darknet Shopper» in The Guardian. The work was part of the exhibition «The Darknet – From Memes to Onionland. An Exploration» in the Kunst Halle St. Gallen, which closed on Sunday, January 11, 2015. For the duration of the exhibition, !Mediengruppe Bitnik sent a software bot on a shopping spree in the Deepweb. Random Darknet Shopper had a budget of $100 in Bitcoins weekly, which it spent on a randomly chosen item from the deepweb shop Agora. The work and the exhibition received wide attention from the public and the press. The exhibition was well-attended and was discussed in a wide range of local and international press from Saiten to Vice, Arte, Libération, CNN, Forbes. «There’s just one problem», The Washington Post wrote in January about the work, «recently, it bought 10 ecstasy pills».

What does it mean for a society, when there are robots which act autonomously? Who is liable, when a robot breaks the law on its own initiative? These were some of the main questions the work Random Darknet Shopper posed. Global questions, which will now be negotiated locally.

On the morning of January 12, the day after the three-month exhibition was closed, the public prosecutor’s office of St. Gallen seized and sealed our work. It seems, the purpose of the confiscation is to impede an endangerment of third parties through the drugs exhibited by destroying them. This is what we know at present. We believe that the confiscation is an unjustified intervention into freedom of art. We’d also like to thank Kunst Halle St. Gallen for their ongoing support and the wonderful collaboration. Furthermore, we are convinced, that it is an objective of art to shed light on the fringes of society and to pose fundamental contemporary questions.

This project brings to mind Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics and a question (from the Wikipedia entry; Note: Links have been removed),

The Three Laws of Robotics (often shortened to The Three Laws or Three Laws, also known as Asimov’s Laws) are a set of rules devised by the science fiction author Isaac Asimov. The rules were introduced in his 1942 short story “Runaround”, although they had been foreshadowed in a few earlier stories. The Three Laws are:

A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Here’s my question, how do you programme a robot to know what would injure a human being? For example, if a human ingests an ecstasy pill the bot purchased, would that be covered in the first law?

Getting back to the robot ethics talk I recently attended, it was given by Ajung Moon (Ph.D. student at the University of British Columbia [Vancouver, Canada] studying Human-Robot Interaction and Roboethics. Mechatronics engineer with a sprinkle of Philosophy background). She has a blog,  Roboethic info DataBase where you can read more on robots and ethics.

I strongly recommend reading both Masnick’s post (he positions this action in a larger context) and Power’s article (more details and images from the exhibit).

Atoms can be in two places at once

A Jan. 20, 2015 news item on Nanowerk offers a brief history of quantum mechanics,

Can a penalty kick simultaneously score a goal and miss? For very small objects, at least, this is possible: according to the predictions of quantum mechanics, microscopic objects can take different paths at the same time. The world of macroscopic objects follows other rules: the football always moves in a definite direction. But is this always correct? Physicists of the University of Bonn have constructed an experiment designed to possibly falsify this thesis. Their first experiment shows that Caesium atoms can indeed take two paths at the same time.

Almost 100 years ago physicists Werner Heisenberg, Max Born und Erwin Schrödinger created a new field of physics: quantum mechanics. Objects of the quantum world – according to quantum theory – no longer move along a single well-defined path. Rather, they can simultaneously take different paths and end up at different places at once.

A Jan. 20, 2015 Universität Bonn (University of Bonn) press release, which originated the news item, describes both the experiment and the thought process which led to the experiment,

At the level of atoms, it looks as if objects indeed obey quantum mechanical laws. Over the years, many experiments have confirmed quantum mechanical predictions. In our macroscopic daily experience, however, we witness a football flying along exactly one path; it never strikes the goal and misses at the same time.

“There are two different interpretations,” says Dr. Andrea Alberti of the Institute of Applied Physics of the University of Bonn. “Quantum mechanics allows superposition states of large, macroscopic objects. But these states are very fragile, even following the football with our eyes is enough to destroy the superposition and makes it follow a definite trajectory.”

But it could also be that footballs obey completely different rules than those applying for single atoms. “Let us talk about the macro-realistic view of the world,” Alberti explains. “According to this interpretation, the ball always moves on a specific trajectory, independent of our observation, and in contrast to the atom.”

In collaboration with Dr. Clive Emary of the University of Hull in the U.K., the Bonn team has come up with an experimental scheme that may help to answer this question. “The challenge was to develop a measurement scheme of the atoms’ positions which allows one to falsify macro-realistic theories,” adds Alberti.

The physicists describe their research in the journal “Physical Review X:” With two optical tweezers they grabbed a single Caesium atom and pulled it in two opposing directions. In the macro-realist’s world the atom would then be at only one of the two final locations. Quantum-mechanically, the atom would instead occupy a superposition of the two positions.

“We have now used indirect measurements to determine the final position of the atom in the most gentle way possible,” says the PhD student Carsten Robens. Even such an indirect measurement (see figure) significantly modified the result of the experiments. This observation excludes – falsifies, as Karl Popper would say more precisely – the possibility that Caesium atoms follow a macro-realistic theory. Instead, the experimental findings of the Bonn team fit well with an interpretation based on superposition states that get destroyed when the indirect measurement occurs. All that we can do is to accept that the atom has indeed taken different paths at the same time.

“This is not yet a proof that quantum mechanics hold for large objects,” cautions Alberti. “The next step is to separate the Caesium atom’s two positions by several millimetres. Should we still find the superposition in our experiment, the macro-realistic theory would suffer another setback.”

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

Ideal negative measurements in quantum walks disprove theories based on classical trajectories by Carsten Robens, Wolfgang Alt, Dieter Meschede, Clive Emary, und Andrea Alberti. Physical Review X, 20.1.2015 (DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevX.5.011003)

This is an open access paper,

PlasCarb: producing graphene and renewable hydrogen from food waster

I have two tidbits about PlasCarb the first being an announcement of its existence and the second an announcement of its recently published research. A Jan. 13, 2015 news item on Nanowerk describes the PlasCarb project (Note: A link has been removed),

The Centre for Process Innovation (CPI) is leading a European collaborative project that aims to transform food waste into a sustainable source of significant economic added value, namely graphene and renewable hydrogen.

The project titled PlasCarb will transform biogas generated by the anaerobic digestion of food waste using an innovative low energy microwave plasma process to split biogas (methane and carbon dioxide) into high value graphitic carbon and renewable hydrogen.

A Jan. 13, 2015 CPI press release, which originated the news item, describes the project and its organization in greater detail,

CPI  as the coordinator of the project is responsible for the technical aspects in the separation of biogas into methane and carbon dioxide, and separating of the graphitic carbon produced from the renewable hydrogen. The infrastructure at CPI allows for the microwave plasma process to be trialled and optimised at pilot production scale, with a future technology roadmap devised for commercial scale manufacturing.

Graphene is one of the most interesting inventions of modern times. Stronger than steel, yet light, the material conducts electricity and heat. It has been used for a wide variety of applications, from strengthening tennis rackets, spray on radiators, to building semiconductors, electric circuits and solar cells.

The sustainable creation of graphene and renewable hydrogen from food waste in provides a sustainable method towards dealing with food waste problem that the European Union faces. It is estimated that 90 million tonnes of food is wasted each year, a figure which could rise to approximately 126 million tonnes by 2020. In the UK alone, food waste equates to a financial loss to business of at least £5 billion per year.

Dr Keith Robson, Director of Formulation and Flexible Manufacturing at CPI said, “PlasCarb will provide an innovative solution to the problems associated with food waste, which is one of the biggest challenges that the European Union faces in the strive towards a low carbon economy.  The project will not only seek to reduce food waste but also use new technological methods to turn it into renewable energy resources which themselves are of economic value, and all within a sustainable manner.”

PlasCarb will utilise quality research and specialist industrial process engineering to optimise the quality and economic value of the Graphene and hydrogen, further enhancing the sustainability of the process life cycle.

Graphitic carbon has been identified as one of Europe’s economically critical raw materials and of strategic performance in the development of future emerging technologies. The global market for graphite, either mined or synthetic is worth over €10 billion per annum. Hydrogen is already used in significant quantities by industry and recognised with great potential as a future transport fuel for a low carbon economy. The ability to produce renewable hydrogen also has added benefits as currently 95% of hydrogen is produced from fossil fuels. Moreover, it is currently projected that increasing demand of raw materials from fossil sources will lead to price volatility, accelerated environmental degradation and rising political tensions over resource access.

Therefore, the latter stages of the project will be dedicated to the market uptake of the PlasCarb process and the output products, through the development of an economically sustainable business strategy, a financial risk assessment of the project results and a flexible financial model that is able to act as a primary screen of economic viability. Based on this, an economic analysis of the process will be determined. Through the development of a decentralised business model for widespread trans-European implementation, the valorisation of food waste will have the potential to be undertaken for the benefit of local economies and employment. More specifically, three interrelated post project exploitation markets have been defined: food waste management, high value graphite and RH2 sales.

PlasCarb is a 3-year collaborative project, co-funded under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) and will further reinforce Europe’s leading position in environmental technologies and innovation in high value Carbon. The consortium is composed of eight partners led by CPI from five European countries, whose complimentary research and industrial expertise will enable the required results to be successfully delivered. The project partners are; The Centre for Process Innovation (UK), GasPlas AS (NO), CNRS (FR), Fraunhofer IBP (DE), Uvasol Ltd (UK), GAP Waste Management (UK), Geonardo Ltd. (HU), Abalonyx AS (NO).

You can find PlasCarb here.

The second announcement can be found in a PlasCarb Jan. 14, 2015 press release announcing the publication of research on heterostructures of graphene ribbons,

Few materials have received as much attention from the scientific world or have raised so many hopes with a view to their potential deployment in new applications as graphene has. This is largely due to its superlative properties: it is the thinnest material in existence, almost transparent, the strongest, the stiffest and at the same time the most strechable, the best thermal conductor, the one with the highest intrinsic charge carrier mobility, plus many more fascinating features. Specifically, its electronic properties can vary enormously through its confinement inside nanostructured systems, for example. That is why ribbons or rows of graphene with nanometric widths are emerging as tremendously interesting electronic components. On the other hand, due to the great variability of electronic properties upon minimal changes in the structure of these nanoribbons, exact control on an atomic level is an indispensable requirement to make the most of all their potential.

The lithographic techniques used in conventional nanotechnology do not yet have such resolution and precision. In the year 2010, however, a way was found to synthesise nanoribbons with atomic precision by means of the so-called molecular self-assembly. Molecules designed for this purpose are deposited onto a surface in such a way that they react with each other and give rise to perfectly specified graphene nanoribbons by means of a highly reproducible process and without any other external mediation than heating to the required temperature. In 2013 a team of scientists from the University of Berkeley and the Centre for Materials Physics (CFM), a mixed CSIC (Spanish National Research Council) and UPV/EHU (University of the Basque Country) centre, extended this very concept to new molecules that were forming wider graphene nanoribbons and therefore with new electronic properties. This same group has now managed to go a step further by creating, through this self-assembly, heterostructures that blend segments of graphene nanoribbons of two different widths.

The forming of heterostructures with different materials has been a concept widely used in electronic engineering and has enabled huge advances to be made in conventional electronics. “We have now managed for the first time to form heterostructures of graphene nanoribbons modulating their width on a molecular level with atomic precision. What is more, their subsequent characterisation by means of scanning tunnelling microscopy and spectroscopy, complemented with first principles theoretical calculations, has shown that it gives rise to a system with very interesting electronic properties which include, for example, the creation of what are known as quantum wells,” pointed out the scientist Dimas de Oteyza, who has participated in this project. This work, the results of which are being published this very week in the journal Nature Nanotechnology, therefore constitutes a significant success towards the desired deployment of graphene in commercial electronic applications.

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

Molecular bandgap engineering of bottom-up synthesized graphene nanoribbon heterojunctions by Yen-Chia Chen, Ting Cao, Chen Chen, Zahra Pedramrazi, Danny Haberer, Dimas G. de Oteyza, Felix R. Fischer, Steven G. Louie, & Michael F. Crommie. Nature Nanotechnology (2015) doi:10.1038/nnano.2014.307 Published online 12 January 2015

This article is behind a paywall but there is a free preview available via ReadCube access.

Job at Sense About Science

For anyone who’s not familiar with Sense About Science (from a Jan. 8, 2015 email),

Sense About Science is the UK based charity that puts science and evidence in the hands of the public. We are a source of information, we challenge misinformation and we champion sound science and evidence. We run award winning campaigns to promote open discussion about evidence, free from stigma and intimidation.

Here is the job posting (from the Jan. 8, 2015 email),

Campaigns Manager

We are recruiting for this new post, reporting to the campaigns director, to run the AllTrials campaign and parts of other Sense About Science campaigns and responsive work.

The AllTrials campaign for clinical trials transparency has already resulted in new regulations, commitments from organisations and support from thousands of people. We now need to extend internationally, coordinating activity across many groups, including patients, publishers, regulators, funders and companies, to get past and future trials reported.

You will manage the AllTrials campaign activities large and small

–          in the UK, with a campaign support officer and volunteers, and the AllTrials steering group,

–          internationally, working with Sense About Science USA and building international relationships.

The post will involve initiating responsive campaigns to new issues and linking our body of work to new discussions. It will involve presenting our work and aims in a variety of forums, from senior government officials to community talks; chairing meetings; and writing articles.

You will work with the campaigns director to devise and implement strategies for AllTrials, and deputise for her, taking a hand in the broader campaign work and Sense About Science.

The successful candidate will be articulate, motivated and ambitious about social change. It is a busy office and no two days are the same so you need to be able to plan well but adapt quickly. The ideal candidate will need:

  • a higher degree in a related subject and a background in research
  • experience of building and maintaining networks
  • experience coordinating and delivering projects and a well-tested ability to prioritise
  • the ability to analyse situations and act when in uncertain territory
  • confident and personable communication and a demonstrable ability to produce good written material which is suited to public awareness campaigns
  • good judgment and negotiating skills

Salary c. £28K – £32K. Holiday: 28 days (inc public holidays), 1 additional day after each year in post, and discretionary Christmas break days. Central London (EC1R). Will include some international travel and out of hours activity.

Email a CV and cover letter to the assistant director Emily Jesper [email protected] by midnight on Thursday 21st January 2015. Interviews will be on Monday 2nd February 2015. Please call director of campaigns Síle Lane if you want to discuss the post and your suitability: 020 7490 9590.

If you don’t have a CV that matches the requirements but you are absolutely convinced you are right for us and this role, feel free to write to us to make the case.

I very much appreciate the final paragraph in the excerpt above. It’s nice to see an organization take a more flexible approach to the recruiting process. You can find the job posting on the Sense About Science website.

Treating municipal wastewater and dirty industry byproducts with nanocellulose-based filters

Researchers at Sweden’s Luleå University of Technology have created nanocellulose-based filters in collaboration with researchers at the Imperial College of London (ICL) good enough for use as filters according to a Dec. 23, 2014 news item on Nanowerk,

Prototypes of nano-cellulose based filters with high purification capacity towards environmentally hazardous contaminants from industrial effluents e.g. process industries, have been developed by researchers at Luleå University of Technology. The research, conducted in collaboration with Imperial College in the UK has reached a breakthrough with the prototypes and they will now be tested on a few industries in Europe.

“The bio-based filter of nano-cellulose is to be used for the first time in real-life situations and tested within a process industry and in municipal wastewater treatment in Spain. Other industries have also shown interest in this technology and representatives of the mining industry have contacted me and I have even received requests from a large retail chain in the UK,” says Aji Mathew Associate Professor, Division of Materials Science at Luleå University.

A Dec. 22, 2014 Luleå University of Technology press release, which originated the news item, further describes the research,

Researchers have combined a cheap residue from the cellulose industry, with functional nano-cellulose to prepare adsorbent sheets with high filtration capacity. The sheets have since been constructed to different prototypes, called cartridges, to be tested. They have high capacity and can filter out heavy metal ions from industrial waters, dyes residues from the printing industry and nitrates from municipal water. Next year, larger sheets with a layer of nano-cellulose can be produced and formed into cartridges, with higher capacity.

– Each such membrane can be tailored to have different removal capability depending on the kind of pollutant, viz., copper, iron, silver, dyes, nitrates and the like, she says.

Behind the research, which is funded mainly by the EU, is a consortium of research institutes, universities, small businesses and process industries. It is coordinated by Luleå University led by Aji Mathew. She thinks that the next step is to seek more money from the EU to scale up this technology to industrial level.

– Alfa Laval is very interested in this and in the beginning of 2015, I go in with a second application to the EU framework program Horizon 2020 with goals for full-scale demonstrations of this technology, she says.

Two of Aji Mathews graduate student Peng Liu and Zoheb Karim is also deeply involved in research on nano-filters.

– I focus on how these membranes can filter out heavy metals by measuring different materials such as nanocrystals and nano-fibers to determine their capacity to absorb and my colleague focuses on how to produce membranes, says Peng Liu PhD student in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at Luleå University of Technology.

I have been following the nanocellulose work at Luleå University of Technology for a few years now. The first piece was a Feb. 15, 2012 post titled, The Swedes, sludge, and nanocellulose fibres, and the next was a Sept. 19, 2013 post titled, Nanocellulose and forest residues at Luleå University of Technology (Sweden). It’s nice to mark the progress over time although I am curious as to the source for the nanocellulose, trees, carrots, bananas?

Molecular robots (nanobots/nanorobots): a promising start at Oxford University

‘Baby steps’ is how they are describing the motion and the breakthrough in functional molecular robots at the University of Oxford. From a Dec. 11, 2014 news item on phys.org,

A walking molecule, so small that it cannot be observed directly with a microscope, has been recorded taking its first nanometre-sized steps.

It’s the first time that anyone has shown in real time that such a tiny object – termed a ‘small molecule walker’ – has taken a series of steps. The breakthrough, made by Oxford University chemists, is a significant milestone on the long road towards developing ‘nanorobots’.

‘In the future we can imagine tiny machines that could fetch and carry cargo the size of individual molecules, which can be used as building blocks of more complicated molecular machines; imagine tiny tweezers operating inside cells,’ said Dr Gokce Su Pulcu of Oxford University’s Department of Chemistry. ‘The ultimate goal is to use molecular walkers to form nanotransport networks,’ she says.

A Dec. 10, 2014 University of Oxford science blog post by Pete Wilton, which originated the news item, describes one of the problem with nanorobots,

However, before nanorobots can run they first have to walk. As Su explains, proving this is no easy task.

For years now researchers have shown that moving machines and walkers can be built out of DNA. But, relatively speaking, DNA is much larger than small molecule walkers and DNA machines only work in water.

The big problem is that microscopes can only detect moving objects down to the level of 10–20 nanometres. This means that small molecule walkers, whose strides are 1 nanometre long, can only be detected after taking around 10 or 15 steps. It would therefore be impossible to tell with a microscope whether a walker had ‘jumped’ or ‘floated’ to a new location rather than taken all the intermediate steps.

The post then describes how the researchers solved the problem,

… Su and her colleagues at Oxford’s Bayley Group took a new approach to detecting a walker’s every step in real time. Their solution? To build a walker from an arsenic-containing molecule and detect its motion on a track built inside a nanopore.

Nanopores are already the foundation of pioneering DNA sequencing technology developed by the Bayley Group and spinout company Oxford Nanopore Technologies. Here, tiny protein pores detect molecules passing through them. Each base disrupts an electric current passed through the nanopore by a different amount so that the DNA base ‘letters’ (A, C, G or T) can be read.

In this new research, they used a nanopore containing a track formed of five ‘footholds’ to detect how a walker was moving across it.

‘We can’t ‘see’ the walker moving, but by mapping changes in the ionic current flowing through the pore as the molecule moves from foothold to foothold we are able to chart how it is stepping from one to the other and back again,’ Su explains.

To ensure that the walker doesn’t float away, they designed it to have ‘feet’ that stick to the track by making and breaking chemical bonds. Su says: ‘It’s a bit like stepping on a carpet with glue under your shoes: with each step the walker’s foot sticks and then unsticks so that it can move to the next foothold.’ This approach could make it possible to design a machine that can walk on a variety of surfaces.

There is a video illustrating the molecular walker’s motion, (courtesy University of Oxford),

There is as noted in Wilton’s post, more work to do,

It’s quite an achievement for such a tiny machine but, as Su is the first to admit, there are many more challenges to be overcome before programmable nanorobots are a reality.

‘At the moment we don’t have much control over which direction the walker moves in; it moves pretty randomly,’ Su tells me. ‘The protein track is a bit like a mountain slope; there’s a direction that’s easier to walk in so walkers will tend to go this way. We hope to be able to harness this preference to build tracks that direct a walker where we want it to go.’

The next challenge after that will be for a walker to make itself useful by, for instance, carrying a cargo: there’s already space for it to carry a molecule on its ‘head’ that it could then take to a desired location to accomplish a task.

Su comments: ‘We should be able to engineer a surface where we can control the movement of these walkers and observe them under a microscope through the way they interact with a very thin fluorescent layer. This would make it possible to design chips with different stations with walkers ferrying cargo between these stations; so the beginnings of a nanotransport system.’

These are the first tentative baby steps of a new technology, but they promise that there could be much bigger strides to come.

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

Continuous observation of the stochastic motion of an individual small-molecule walker by Gökçe Su Pulcu, Ellina Mikhailova, Lai-Sheung Choi, & Hagan Bayley. Nature Nanotechnology (2014) doi:10.1038/nnano.2014.264 Published online 08 December 2014

This paper is behind a paywall.

Do Tenebrionind beetles collect dew or condensation—a water issue at the nanoscale

Up until now, the research I’ve stumbled across about Tenebrionind beetles and their water-collecting ways has been from the US but this latest work comes from a France/Spain,/UK collaboration which focused on a specific question, exactly where do these beetles harvest their water from? A Dec. 8, 2014 news item on Nanotechnology Now describes this latest research,

Understanding how a desert beetle harvests water from dew could improve drinking water collection in dew condensers

Insects are full of marvels – and this is certainly the case with a beetle from the Tenebrionind family, found in the extreme conditions of the Namib desert. Now, a team of scientists has demonstrated that such insects can collect dew on their backs – and not just fog as previously thought. This is made possible by the wax nanostructure on the surface of the beetle’s elytra. … They bring us a step closer to harvesting dew to make drinking water from the humidity in the air. This, the team hopes, can be done by improving the water yield of man-made dew condensers that mimick the nanostructure on the beetle’s back.

A Dec. 8, 2014  Springer press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes how this research adds to the body of knowledge about the ability to harvest water from the air,

It was not clear from previous studies whether water harvested by such beetles came from dew droplets, in addition to fog. Whereas fog is made of ready-made microdroplets floating in the air, dew appears following the cooling of a substrate below air temperature. This then turns the humidity of air into tiny droplets of water because more energy – as can be measured through infrared emissions – is sent to the atmosphere than received by it. The cooling capability is ideal, they demonstrated, because the insect’s back demonstrates near-perfect infrared emissivity.

Guadarrama-Cetina [José Guadarrama-Cetina] and colleagues also performed an image analysis of dew drops forming on the insect’s back on the surface of the elytra, which appears as a series of bumps and valleys. Dew primarily forms in the valleys endowed with a hexagonal microstructure, they found, unlike the smooth surface of the bumps. This explains how drops can slide to the insect’s mouth when they reach a critical size.

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

Dew condensation on desert beetle skin by J.M. Guadarrama-Cetina, A. Mongruel, M.-G. Medici, E. Baquero, A.R. Parker, I. Milimouk-Melnytchuk, W. González-Viñas, and D. Beysens. Eur. Phys. J. E (European Physics Journal E 2014) 37: 109, DOI 10.1140/epje/i2014-14109-y

This paper is currently (Dec. 8, 2014) open access. I do not know if this will be permanent or if access rights will change over time.

My previous postings on the topic of water and beetles have focused on US research of the Stenocara beetle (aka Namib desert beetle) which appears to be a member of the Tenebrionind family of beetles mentioned in this latest research.

The European researchers have provided an image of the beetle they were examining,

A preserved specimen of the Tenebrionind beetle (Physasterna cribripes) was used for this study, displaying the insect’s mechanisms of dew harvesting. © J.M. Guadarrama-Cetina et al.

A preserved specimen of the Tenebrionind beetle (Physasterna cribripes) was used for this study, displaying the insect’s mechanisms of dew harvesting. © J.M. Guadarrama-Cetina et al.

As for my other pieces on this topic, there’s a July 29, 2014 post, a June 18, 2014 post, and a Nov. 26, 2012 post.

Graphene not so impermeable after all

I saw the news last week but it took reading Dexter Johnson’s Dec. 2, 2014 post for me to achieve a greater understanding of why graphene’s proton permeability is such a big deal and of the tensions underlying graphene research in the UK.

Let’s start with the news, from a Nov. 26, 2014 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

Published in the journal Nature (“Proton transport through one-atom-thick crystals”), the discovery could revolutionise fuel cells and other hydrogen-based technologies as they require a barrier that only allow protons – hydrogen atoms stripped off their electrons – to pass through.

In addition, graphene membranes could be used to sieve hydrogen gas out of the atmosphere, where it is present in minute quantities, creating the possibility of electric generators powered by air.

A Nov. 26, 2014 University of Manchester news release, which originated the news item, describes the research in greater detail,

One-atom thick material graphene, first isolated and explored in 2004 by a team at The University of Manchester, is renowned for its barrier properties, which has a number of uses in applications such as corrosion-proof coatings and impermeable packaging.

For example, it would take the lifetime of the universe for hydrogen, the smallest of all atoms, to pierce a graphene monolayer.

Now a group led by Sir Andre Geim tested whether protons are also repelled by graphene. They fully expected that protons would be blocked, as existing theory predicted as little proton permeation as for hydrogen.

Despite the pessimistic prognosis, the researchers found that protons pass through the ultra-thin crystals surprisingly easily, especially at elevated temperatures and if the films were covered with catalytic nanoparticles such as platinum.

The discovery makes monolayers of graphene, and its sister material boron nitride, attractive for possible uses as proton-conducting membranes, which are at the heart of modern fuel cell technology. Fuel cells use oxygen and hydrogen as a fuel and convert the input chemical energy directly into electricity. Without membranes that allow an exclusive flow of protons but prevent other species to pass through, this technology would not exist.

Despite being well-established, fuel-cell technology requires further improvements to make it more widely used. One of the major problems is a fuel crossover through the existing proton membranes, which reduces their efficiency and durability.

The University of Manchester research suggests that the use of graphene or monolayer boron nitride can allow the existing membranes to become thinner and more efficient, with less fuel crossover and poisoning. This can boost competitiveness of fuel cells.

The Manchester group also demonstrated that their one-atom-thick membranes can be used to extract hydrogen from a humid atmosphere. They hypothesise that such harvesting can be combined together with fuel cells to create a mobile electric generator that is fuelled simply by hydrogen present in air.

Marcelo Lozada-Hidalgo, a PhD student and corresponding author of this paper, said: “When you know how it should work, it is a very simple setup. You put a hydrogen-containing gas on one side, apply small electric current and collect pure hydrogen on the other side. This hydrogen can then be burned in a fuel cell.

“We worked with small membranes, and the achieved flow of hydrogen is of course tiny so far. But this is the initial stage of discovery, and the paper is to make experts aware of the existing prospects. To build up and test hydrogen harvesters will require much further effort.”

Dr Sheng Hu, a postdoctoral researcher and the first author in this work, added: “It looks extremely simple and equally promising. Because graphene can be produced these days in square metre sheets, we hope that it will find its way to commercial fuel cells sooner rather than later”.

The work is an international collaboration involving groups from China and the Netherlands who supported theoretical aspects of this research. Marcelo Lozada-Hidalgo is funded by a PhD studentship programme between the National Council of Science and Technology of Mexico and The University of Manchester.

Here’s more about the research and its implications from Dexter Johnson’s Dec. 2, 2014 post on the Nanoclast blog on the IEEE (Institute of Electronics and Electrical Engineers) website (Note: Links have been removed),

This latest development alters the understanding of one of the key properties of graphene: that it is impermeable to all gases and liquids. Even an atom as small as hydrogen would need billions of years for it to pass through the dense electronic cloud of graphene.  In fact, it is this impermeability that has made it attractive for use in gas separation membranes.

But as Geim and his colleagues discovered, in research that was published in the journal Nature, monolayers of graphene and boron nitride are highly permeable to thermal protons under ambient conditions. So hydrogen atoms stripped of their electrons could pass right through the one-atom-thick materials.

The surprising discovery that protons could breach these materials means that that they could be used in proton-conducting membranes (also known as proton exchange membranes), which are central to the functioning of fuel cells. Fuel cells operate through chemical reactions involving hydrogen fuel and oxygen, with the result being electrical energy. The membranes used in the fuel cells are impermeable to oxygen and hydrogen but allow for the passage of protons.

Dexter goes into more detail about hydrogen fuel cells and why this discovery is so exciting. He also provides some insight into the UK’s graphene community (Note: A link has been removed),

While some have been frustrated that Geim has focused his attention on fundamental research rather than becoming more active in the commercialization of graphene, he may have just cracked open graphene’s greatest application possibility to date.

I recommend reading Dexter’s post if you want to learn more about fuel cell technology and the impact this discovery may have.

Richard Van Noorden’s Nov. 27, 2014 article for Nature provides another perspective on this work,

Fuel-cell experts say that the work is proof of principle, but are cautious about its immediate application. Factors such as to how grow a sufficiently clean, large graphene sheet, and its cost and lifetime, would have to be taken into account. “It may or may not be a better membrane for a fuel cell,” says Andrew Herring, a chemical engineer at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden.

Van Noorden also writes about another graphene discovery from last week, which won’t be featured here. Where graphene is concerned I have to draw a line or else this entire blog would be focused on that material alone.

Getting back back to permeability, graphene, and protons, here’s a link to and a citation for the research paper,

Proton transport through one-atom-thick crystals by S. Hu, M. Lozada-Hidalgo, F. C. Wang, A. Mishchenko, F. Schedin, R. R. Nair, E. W. Hill, D. W. Boukhvalov, M. I. Katsnelson, R. A. W. Dryfe, I. V. Grigorieva, H. A. Wu, & A. K. Geim. Nature (2014 doi:10.1038/nature14015 Published online 26 November 2014

This article is behind a paywall.

December 2014 issue of the Nano Bite (from the Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network) features last day (Dec. 1, 2014) to apply for NanoDays 2015 physical kit and a bit about a medieval cleric who* ‘unwove’ light

Depending on your timezone, there are still a few hours left to submit an online application for a NanoDays 2015 physical kit. From a Sept. 15, 2014 posting by Catherine McCarthy for NISENet (Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network),

Apply now for a NanoDays 2015 physical kit!
NanoDays 2015 will be held from March 28 through April 5, 2015. NanoDays is a week of community-based educational outreach events to raise public awareness of nanoscale science, technology and engineering throughout the United States. NanoDays kits are currently in production and will be ready for distribution in early 2015. We invite you to fill out an online application for a physical kit containing all of the materials and resources you need to start planning your community events; applications are due December 1, 2014.

 

We’re in Year 10 of funding for NISE Net, what’s going to happen to NanoDays?

This is the final NanoDays physical kit that will be funded through the current NISE Net award. Beyond 2015, we encourage you to continue to host NanoDays and strengthen local partnerships by using this kit (and any previous kits you have). We’ve set dates for the next five years to promote national participation in NanoDays in the years to come.

Future NanoDays will be held:

  • 2016: March 26-April 3
  • 2017: March 25-April 2
  • 2018: March 31-April 8
  • 2019: March 30-April 7
  • 2020: March 28-April 5

The NISE Network leadership is seeking opportunities to continue NanoDays after 2015, so stay tuned for further information!

Who can participate in NanoDays?
NanoDays kits are intended for use in public events; most host organizations are informal science education institutions and public outreach programs of nanoscience research centers. We invite you and your organization to participate in NanoDays 2015, whether or not you have previous experience with nano-related public outreach activities.

For anyone unfamiliar with the NanoDays programs, the post goes on to provide more details.

Here’s more about the upcoming International Year of Light (IYL)  mentioned in my Nov. 7, 2014 post,

What’s Nano about Light?
The United Nations has declared that 2015 is the International Year of Light (IYL) and light-based technologies. This global initiative helps to highlight for the public the importance of light and optical technologies in ones’ everyday life and it’s role in the development of society and the future. Endorsed by the International Council of Science, the International Year of Light 2015 has more than 100 partners from more than 85 countries!

Are you looking for ways to get involved?

There’s this tidbit about a special event featuring the University of Vermont physics department, light, and a local watershed (from the newsletter),

A Bi-Polar Affair Captivates Visitors with EnLIGHTening Nanoscale Science

By Luke Donforth, The University of Vermont

The University of Vermont (UVM) Physics Department and ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center have a long collaborative relationship, through which the NISE Network has provided an excellent framework to help strengthen and deepen. Although an institution of formal learning, UVM values and contributes to informal education in the surrounding community.

Recently, the UVM Physics Department and ECHO received a NISE Net mini-grant to develop a daylong event outside the purview of NanoDays. ECHO focuses on the Lake Champlain watershed, and the Physics Department wanted to show how basic science is a useful tool for investigating, understanding, and caring for the lake and world around us. Light, and specifically polarization, gave us a unifying theme to bring a number of activities and concepts to ECHO. Visible light, something most museum visitors have experience with, has wavelengths in the hundreds of nanometers. This provides a comfortable entry point to familiarize visitors with “nano,” and from there we can highlight how interacting with light at the length scale of its wavelength allows us to investigate both light and the world around us.

….

Polarization, the orientation of components of light, provides a tool with uses ranging from telling the time of day to monitoring invasive species in Lake Champlain. As an example of the later, Professor J. Ellen Marsden (an ichthyologist with UVM’s Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources and long-time ECHO collaborator) supplied samples of larval zebra mussels from Lake Champlain. Zebra mussels, an invasive species actively monitored in the lake, are more easily distinguished and detected earlier with the thoughtful application polarized light.

We’re going to be hearing a lot more about light as we gear up for 2015. Meanwhile, you can read the entire December 2014 issue of the Nano Bite here.

In keeping with my previous comment, there’s this bit about a medieval cleric who helped us to understand light and optics. From a Nov. 27, 2014 posting by Michael Brooks, on the Guardian science blog, concerning his recent participation in a Festival of Humanities event held at the medieval Durham Cathedral,

Robert Grosseteste was a medieval pioneer of science. And, despite having died in 1253, the good bishop is up for an award on Thursday night [Nov. 27, 2014]. The shortlist for the Times Higher Education’s 2014 Research Project of the Year includes the researchers from Durham University who laid on last week’s activities in the cathedral’s Chapter House and Deanery, and they openly describe Grosseteste as one of their collaborators.

They made this clear in a paper they published in the prestigious journal Nature Physics in July. The scientists are re-examining Grosseteste’s work, and finding he made contributions to the field of optics that have yet to be assimilated into the canon of science. So they’ve come on board to help complete the record.

Grosseteste’s insight into the physics of rainbows has, for instance, enabled the researchers in the Ordered Universe collaboration to create a new co-ordinate system for colour. Anyone who has tried to calibrate a computer monitor knows that we now talk in terms of hue (a particular ratio of red, green and blue), saturation and brightness. Examination of Grosseteste’s writings has inspired an equally valid rainbow-based colour system.

It is based on the angle through which sunlight is scattered by the water drops, the “purity” of the medium – related to the size of the water drops – and the distance of the sun above the horizon. Grosseteste’s three-dimensional scheme outlines what Durham physicist Tom McLeish calls “the space of all possible rainbows”.

Here’s an image of a rainbow over Durham Cathedral,

 Rainbow over Durham Cathedral by StephieBee [downloaded from https://www.flickr.com/photos/visitengland/galleries/72157625178514241/]


Rainbow over Durham Cathedral
by StephieBee [downloaded from https://www.flickr.com/photos/visitengland/galleries/72157625178514241/]

Here’s where you can find more of StephieBee‘s work.

Sadly, GrosseTeste did not win top prize but I’m sure if he were still around, he’d say something like, “It was an honour to be nominated and I thank God.” As for the Festival of Humanities (Being Human), there’s more here about its 2014 inaugural year.

*Changed ‘on’ to ‘who’ in headline on Dec. 2, 2014.

Remotely controlling bone regeneration with metallic nanoparticles

A Nov. 24, 2014 news item on ScienceDaily heralds some bone regeneration research which was published back in Sept. 2014,

Researchers in bone tissue regeneration believe they have made a significant breakthrough for sufferers of bone trauma, disease or defects such as osteoporosis.

Medical researchers from Keele University and Nottingham University have found that magnetic nanoparticles coated with targeting proteins can stimulate stem cells to regenerate bone. Researchers were also able to deliver the cells directly to the injured area, remotely controlling the nanoparticles to generate mechanical forces and maintain the regeneration process through staged releases of a protein growth stimulant.

A Nov. 17, 2014 Keele University (UK) press release, which originated the news item, describes the issues the researchers are addressing and their research approach,

The current method for repairing bone that can’t heal itself is through a graft taken from the patient. Unfortunately, this can be a painful, invasive procedure, and when the area that needs repair is too large or the patient has a skeletal disorder such as there can sometimes be a lack of healthy bone for grafting.

For this reason, spurring the growth of new bone through injected stem cells is an area of great interest to medical researchers. Much progress has been made, but a major hurdle remains – finding an appropriate means to stimulate the differentiation of the stem cells so they become the quality of bone tissue needed in a quantity large enough to treat patients effectively.

James Henstock, Ph.D. led the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC)-funded study, alongside Alicia El Haj, Ph.D., and colleagues at Keele University’s Institute for Science and Technology in Medicine, as well as Kevin Shakesheff, Ph.D., from the University of Nottingham’s School of Pharmacy.

James Henstock said: “Injectable therapies for regenerative medicine show great potential as a minimally invasive route for introducing therapeutic stem cells, drug delivery vehicles and biomaterials efficiently to wound sites.”

“In our investigation we coated magnetic nanoparticles with specific targeting proteins then controlled them remotely with an external magnetic field to simulate exercise. We wanted to learn how this might affect the injected stem cells and their ability to restore functional bone.”

The team of researchers conducted their test using two models: chicken foetal femurs and tissue-engineered collagen hydrogels. In both instances the results showed an increase in bone formation and density without causing any mechanical stress to the construct or surrounding tissue.

“This work demonstrates that providing the appropriate mechanical cues in conjunction with controlled release of growth factors to these injectable cell therapies can have a significant impact on improving bone growth. It also could potentially improve tissue engineering approaches for translational medicine” Dr. Henstock said.

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

Remotely Activated Mechanotransduction via Magnetic Nanoparticles Promotes Mineralization Synergistically With Bone Morphogenetic Protein 2: Applications for Injectable Cell Therapy by James R. Henstock, Michael Rotherham, Hassan Rashidi, Kevin M. Shakesheff, and Alicia J. El Haja. Stem Cells Trans Med September 2014 sctm.2014-0017  (First Published Online September 22, 2014 doi: 10.5966/sctm.2014-0017)

This paper is open access but you do need to sign up for a free registration for access to the website.