Tag Archives: UK

New principles for AI (artificial intelligence) research along with some history and a plea for a democratic discussion

For almost a month I’ve been meaning to get to this Feb. 1, 2017 essay by Andrew Maynard (director of Risk Innovation Lab at Arizona State University) and Jack Stilgoe (science policy lecturer at University College London [UCL]) on the topic of artificial intelligence and principles (Note: Links have been removed). First, a walk down memory lane,

Today [Feb. 1, 2017] in Washington DC, leading US and UK scientists are meeting to share dispatches from the frontiers of machine learning – an area of research that is creating new breakthroughs in artificial intelligence (AI). Their meeting follows the publication of a set of principles for beneficial AI that emerged from a conference earlier this year at a place with an important history.

In February 1975, 140 people – mostly scientists, with a few assorted lawyers, journalists and others – gathered at a conference centre on the California coast. A magazine article from the time by Michael Rogers, one of the few journalists allowed in, reported that most of the four days’ discussion was about the scientific possibilities of genetic modification. Two years earlier, scientists had begun using recombinant DNA to genetically modify viruses. The Promethean nature of this new tool prompted scientists to impose a moratorium on such experiments until they had worked out the risks. By the time of the Asilomar conference, the pent-up excitement was ready to burst. It was only towards the end of the conference when a lawyer stood up to raise the possibility of a multimillion-dollar lawsuit that the scientists focussed on the task at hand – creating a set of principles to govern their experiments.

The 1975 Asilomar meeting is still held up as a beacon of scientific responsibility. However, the story told by Rogers, and subsequently by historians, is of scientists motivated by a desire to head-off top down regulation with a promise of self-governance. Geneticist Stanley Cohen said at the time, ‘If the collected wisdom of this group doesn’t result in recommendations, the recommendations may come from other groups less well qualified’. The mayor of Cambridge, Massachusetts was a prominent critic of the biotechnology experiments then taking place in his city. He said, ‘I don’t think these scientists are thinking about mankind at all. I think that they’re getting the thrills and the excitement and the passion to dig in and keep digging to see what the hell they can do’.

The concern in 1975 was with safety and containment in research, not with the futures that biotechnology might bring about. A year after Asilomar, Cohen’s colleague Herbert Boyer founded Genentech, one of the first biotechnology companies. Corporate interests barely figured in the conversations of the mainly university scientists.

Fast-forward 42 years and it is clear that machine learning, natural language processing and other technologies that come under the AI umbrella are becoming big business. The cast list of the 2017 Asilomar meeting included corporate wunderkinds from Google, Facebook and Tesla as well as researchers, philosophers, and other academics. The group was more intellectually diverse than their 1975 equivalents, but there were some notable absences – no public and their concerns, no journalists, and few experts in the responsible development of new technologies.

Maynard and Stilgoe offer a critique of the latest principles,

The principles that came out of the meeting are, at least at first glance, a comforting affirmation that AI should be ‘for the people’, and not to be developed in ways that could cause harm. They promote the idea of beneficial and secure AI, development for the common good, and the importance of upholding human values and shared prosperity.

This is good stuff. But it’s all rather Motherhood and Apple Pie: comforting and hard to argue against, but lacking substance. The principles are short on accountability, and there are notable absences, including the need to engage with a broader set of stakeholders and the public. At the early stages of developing new technologies, public concerns are often seen as an inconvenience. In a world in which populism appears to be trampling expertise into the dirt, it is easy to understand why scientists may be defensive.

I encourage you to read this thoughtful essay in its entirety although I do have one nit to pick:  Why only US and UK scientists? I imagine the answer may lie in funding and logistics issues but I find it surprising that the critique makes no mention of the international community as a nod to inclusion.

For anyone interested in the Asolimar AI principles (2017), you can find them here. You can also find videos of the two-day workshop (Jan. 31 – Feb. 1, 2017 workshop titled The Frontiers of Machine Learning (a Raymond and Beverly Sackler USA-UK Scientific Forum [US National Academy of Sciences]) here (videos for each session are available on Youtube).

Nanoparticle fertilizer and dreams of a new ‘Green’ revolution

There were hints even while it was happening that the ‘Green Revolution’ of the 1960s was not all it was touted to be. (For those who haven’t come across the term before, the Green Revolution was a better way to farm, a way that would feed everyone on earth. Or, that was the dream.)

Perhaps this time, they’ll be more successful. From a Jan. 15, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily, which offers a perspective on the ‘Green Revolution’ that differs from mine,

The “Green Revolution” of the ’60s and ’70s has been credited with helping to feed billions around the world, with fertilizers being one of the key drivers spurring the agricultural boom. But in developing countries, the cost of fertilizer remains relatively high and can limit food production. Now researchers report in the journal ACS Nano a simple way to make a benign, more efficient fertilizer that could contribute to a second food revolution.

A Jan. 25, 2017 American Chemical Society news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

Farmers often use urea, a rich source of nitrogen, as fertilizer. Its flaw, however, is that it breaks down quickly in wet soil and forms ammonia. The ammonia is washed away, creating a major environmental issue as it leads to eutrophication of water ways and ultimately enters the atmosphere as nitrogen dioxide, the main greenhouse gas associated with agriculture. This fast decomposition also limits the amount of nitrogen that can get absorbed by crop roots and requires farmers to apply more fertilizer to boost production. However, in low-income regions where populations continue to grow and the food supply is unstable, the cost of fertilizer can hinder additional applications and cripple crop yields. Nilwala Kottegoda, Veranja Karunaratne, Gehan Amaratunga and colleagues wanted to find a way to slow the breakdown of urea and make one application of fertilizer last longer.

To do this, the researchers developed a simple and scalable method for coating hydroxyapatite (HA) nanoparticles with urea molecules. HA is a mineral found in human and animal tissues and is considered to be environmentally friendly. In water, the hybridization of the HA nanoparticles and urea slowly released nitrogen, 12 times slower than urea by itself. Initial field tests on rice farms showed that the HA-urea nanohybrid lowered the need for fertilizer by one-half. The researchers say their development could help contribute to a new green revolution to help feed the world’s continuously growing population and also improve the environmental sustainability of agriculture.

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

Urea-Hydroxyapatite Nanohybrids for Slow Release of Nitrogen by Nilwala Kottegoda, Chanaka Sandaruwan, Gayan Priyadarshana, Asitha Siriwardhana, Upendra A. Rathnayake, Danushka Madushanka Berugoda Arachchige, Asurusinghe R. Kumarasinghe, Damayanthi Dahanayake, Veranja Karunaratne, and Gehan A. J. Amaratunga. ACS Nano, Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/acsnano.6b07781 Publication Date (Web): January 25, 2017

Copyright © 2017 American Chemical Society

This paper is open access.

Little black graphene dress

Graphene Dress. Courtesy: intu

I don’t think there are many women who can carry off this garment. Of course that’s not the point as the dress is designed to show off its technical capabilities. A Jan. 31, 2017 news item on Nanowerk announces the little black graphene dress (lbgd?),

Science and fashion have been brought together to create the world’s most technically advanced dress, the intu Little Black Graphene Dress.

The new prototype garment showcases the future uses of the revolutionary, Nobel Prize winning material graphene and incorporating it into fashion for the first time, in the ultimate wearable tech statement garment.

A Jan. 25, 2017 National Graphene Institute at University of Manchester press release, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

The project between intu Trafford Centre, renowned wearable tech company Cute Circuit which has made dresses for the likes of Katy Perry and Nicole Scherzinger and the National Graphene Institute at The University of Manchester, uses graphene in a number of innovative ways to create the world’s most high tech LBD – highlighting the material’s incredible properties.

The dress is complete with a graphene sensor which captures the rate in which the wearer is breathing via a contracting graphene band around the models waist, the micro LED which is featured across the bust on translucent conductive graphene responds to the sensor making the LED flash and changing colour depending on breathing rate. It marks a major step in the future uses of graphene in fashion where it is hoped the highly conductive transparent material could be used to create designs which act as screens showcasing digital imagery which could be programmed to change and updated by the wearer meaning one garment could be in any colour hue or design.

The 3D printed graphene filament shows the intricate structural detail of graphene in raised diamond shaped patterns and showcases graphene’s unrivalled conductivity with flashing LED lights.

The high tech LBD can be controlled by The Q app created by Cute Circuit to change the way the garment illuminates.

The dress was created by the Manchester shopping centre to celebrate Manchester’s crown as the European City of Science. The dress will then be on display at intu Trafford Centre, it will then be available for museums and galleries to loan for fashion displays.

Richard Paxton, general manager at intu Trafford Centre said: “We have a real passion for fashion and fashion firsts, this dress is a celebration of Manchester, its amazing love for innovation and textiles, showcasing this new wonder material in a truly unique and exciting way. It really is the world’s most high-tech dress featuring the most advanced super-material and something intu is very proud to have created in collaboration with Cute Circuit and the National Graphene Institute. Hopefully this project inspires more people to experiment with graphene and its wide range of uses.”

Francesca Rosella, Chief Creative Director for Cute Circuit said: “This was such an exciting project for us to get involved in, graphene has never been used in the fashion industry and being the first to use it was a real honour allowing us to have a lot of fun creating the stunning intu Little Black Graphene Dress, and showcasing graphene’s amazing properties.”

Dr Paul Wiper, Research Associate, National Graphene Institute said: “This is a fantastic project, graphene is still very much at its infancy for real-world applications and showcasing its amazing properties through the forum of fashion is very exciting. The dress is truly a one of a kind and shows what creativity, imagination and a desire to innovate can create using graphene and related two-dimensional materials.”

The dress is modelled by Britain’s Next Top Model finalist Bethan Sowerby who is from Manchester and used to work at intu Trafford Centre’s Top Shop.

Probably not coming soon to a store near you.

Developing cortical implants for future speech neural prostheses

I’m guessing that graphene will feature in these proposed cortical implants since the project leader is a member of the Graphene Flagship’s Biomedical Technologies Work Package. (For those who don’t know, the Graphene Flagship is one of two major funding initiatives each receiving funding of 1B Euros over 10 years from the European Commission as part of their FET [Future and Emerging Technologies)] Initiative.)  A Jan. 12, 2017 news item on Nanowerk announces the new project (Note: A link has been removed),

BrainCom is a FET Proactive project, funded by the European Commission with 8.35M€ [8.3 million Euros] for the next 5 years, holding its Kick-off meeting on January 12-13 at ICN2 (Catalan Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology) and the UAB [ Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona]. This project, coordinated by ICREA [Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies] Research Prof. Jose A. Garrido from ICN2, will permit significant advances in understanding of cortical speech networks and the development of speech rehabilitation solutions using innovative brain-computer interfaces.

A Jan. 12, 2017 ICN2 press release, which originated the news item expands on the theme (it is a bit repetitive),

More than 5 million people worldwide suffer annually from aphasia, an extremely invalidating condition in which patients lose the ability to comprehend and formulate language after brain damage or in the course of neurodegenerative disorders. Brain-computer interfaces (BCIs), enabled by forefront technologies and materials, are a promising approach to treat patients with aphasia. The principle of BCIs is to collect neural activity at its source and decode it by means of electrodes implanted directly in the brain. However, neurorehabilitation of higher cognitive functions such as language raises serious issues. The current challenge is to design neural implants that cover sufficiently large areas of the brain to allow for reliable decoding of detailed neuronal activity distributed in various brain regions that are key for language processing.

BrainCom is a FET Proactive project funded by the European Commission with 8.35M€ for the next 5 years. This interdisciplinary initiative involves 10 partners including technologists, engineers, biologists, clinicians, and ethics experts. They aim to develop a new generation of neuroprosthetic cortical devices enabling large-scale recordings and stimulation of cortical activity to study high level cognitive functions. Ultimately, the BraimCom project will seed a novel line of knowledge and technologies aimed at developing the future generation of speech neural prostheses. It will cover different levels of the value chain: from technology and engineering to basic and language neuroscience, and from preclinical research in animals to clinical studies in humans.

This recently funded project is coordinated by ICREA Prof. Jose A. Garrido, Group Leader of the Advanced Electronic Materials and Devices Group at the Institut Català de Nanociència i Nanotecnologia (Catalan Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology – ICN2) and deputy leader of the Biomedical Technologies Work Package presented last year in Barcelona by the Graphene Flagship. The BrainCom Kick-Off meeting is held on January 12-13 at ICN2 and the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB).

Recent developments show that it is possible to record cortical signals from a small region of the motor cortex and decode them to allow tetraplegic [also known as, quadriplegic] people to activate a robotic arm to perform everyday life actions. Brain-computer interfaces have also been successfully used to help tetraplegic patients unable to speak to communicate their thoughts by selecting letters on a computer screen using non-invasive electroencephalographic (EEG) recordings. The performance of such technologies can be dramatically increased using more detailed cortical neural information.

BrainCom project proposes a radically new electrocorticography technology taking advantage of unique mechanical and electrical properties of novel nanomaterials such as graphene, 2D materials and organic semiconductors.  The consortium members will fabricate ultra-flexible cortical and intracortical implants, which will be placed right on the surface of the brain, enabling high density recording and stimulation sites over a large area. This approach will allow the parallel stimulation and decoding of cortical activity with unprecedented spatial and temporal resolution.

These technologies will help to advance the basic understanding of cortical speech networks and to develop rehabilitation solutions to restore speech using innovative brain-computer paradigms. The technology innovations developed in the project will also find applications in the study of other high cognitive functions of the brain such as learning and memory, as well as other clinical applications such as epilepsy monitoring.

The BrainCom project Consortium members are:

  • Catalan Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology (ICN2) – Spain (Coordinator)
  • Institute of Microelectronics of Barcelona (CNM-IMB-CSIC) – Spain
  • University Grenoble Alpes – France
  • ARMINES/ Ecole des Mines de St. Etienne – France
  • Centre Hospitalier Universitaire de Grenoble – France
  • Multichannel Systems – Germany
  • University of Geneva – Switzerland
  • University of Oxford – United Kingdom
  • Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München – Germany
  • Wavestone – Luxembourg

There doesn’t seem to be a website for the project but there is a BrainCom webpage on the European Commission’s CORDIS (Community Research and Development Information Service) website.

Nanotechnology cracks Wall Street (Daily)

David Dittman’s Jan. 11, 2017 article for wallstreetdaily.com portrays a great deal of excitement about nanotechnology and the possibilities (I’m highlighting the article because it showcases Dexter Johnson’s Nanoclast blog),

When we talk about next-generation aircraft, next-generation wearable biomedical devices, and next-generation fiber-optic communication, the consistent theme is nano: nanotechnology, nanomaterials, nanophotonics.

For decades, manufacturers have used carbon fiber to make lighter sports equipment, stronger aircraft, and better textiles.

Now, as Dexter Johnson of IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] Spectrum reports [on his Nanoclast blog], carbon nanotubes will help make aerospace composites more efficient:

Now researchers at the University of Surrey’s Advanced Technology Institute (ATI), the University of Bristol’s Advanced Composite Centre for Innovation and Science (ACCIS), and aerospace company Bombardier [headquartered in Montréal, Canada] have collaborated on the development of a carbon nanotube-enabled material set to replace the polymer sizing. The reinforced polymers produced with this new material have enhanced electrical and thermal conductivity, opening up new functional possibilities. It will be possible, say the British researchers, to embed gadgets such as sensors and energy harvesters directly into the material.

When it comes to flight, lighter is better, so building sensors and energy harvesters into the body of aircraft marks a significant leap forward.

Johnson also reports for IEEE Spectrum on a “novel hybrid nanomaterial” based on oscillations of electrons — a major advance in nanophotonics:

Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin have developed a hybrid nanomaterial that enables the writing, erasing and rewriting of optical components. The researchers believe that this nanomaterial and the techniques used in exploiting it could create a new generation of optical chips and circuits.

Of course, the concept of rewritable optics is not altogether new; it forms the basis of optical storage mediums like CDs and DVDs. However, CDs and DVDs require bulky light sources, optical media and light detectors. The advantage of the rewritable integrated photonic circuits developed here is that it all happens on a 2-D material.

“To develop rewritable integrated nanophotonic circuits, one has to be able to confine light within a 2-D plane, where the light can travel in the plane over a long distance and be arbitrarily controlled in terms of its propagation direction, amplitude, frequency and phase,” explained Yuebing Zheng, a professor at the University of Texas who led the research… “Our material, which is a hybrid, makes it possible to develop rewritable integrated nanophotonic circuits.”

Who knew that mixing graphene with homemade Silly Putty would create a potentially groundbreaking new material that could make “wearables” actually useful?

Next-generation biomedical devices will undoubtedly include some of this stuff:

A dash of graphene can transform the stretchy goo known as Silly Putty into a pressure sensor able to monitor a human pulse or even track the dainty steps of a small spider.

The material, dubbed G-putty, could be developed into a device that continuously monitors blood pressure, its inventors hope.

The guys who made G-putty often rely on “household stuff” in their research.

It’s nice to see a blogger’s work be highlighted. Congratulations Dexter.

G-putty was mentioned here in a Dec. 30, 2016 posting which also includes a link to Dexter’s piece on the topic.

Canadian Science Policy Conference inaugurates Lecture Series: Science Advice in a Troubled World

The Canadian Science Policy Centre (CSPC) launched a lecture series on Monday, Jan. 16, 2017 with Sir Peter Gluckman as the first speaker in a talk titled, Science Advice in a Troubled World. From a Jan. 18, 2017 CSPC announcement (received via email),

The inaugural session of the Canadian Science Policy Lecture Series was hosted by ISSP [University of Ottawa’s Institute for Science Society and Policy (ISSP)] on Monday January 16th [2017] at the University of Ottawa. Sir Peter Gluckman, Chief Science Advisor to the Prime Minister of New Zealand gave a presentation titled “Science Advise [sic] in a troubled world”. For a summary of the event, video and pictures please visit the event page.  

The session started with speeches by Monica Gattiner, Director, Institute for Science, Society and Policy, Jacques Frémont, President of the University of Ottawa as well as Mehrdad Hariri, CEO and President of the Canadian Science Policy Centre (CSPC).

The talk itself is about 50 mins. but there are lengthy introductions, including a rather unexpected (by me) reference to the recent US election from the president of the University of Ottawa, Jacques Frémont (formerly the head of Québec’s Human Rights Commission, where the talk was held. There was also a number of questions after the talk. So, the running time for the video 1 hr. 12 mins.

Here’s a bit more information about Sir Peter, from the Science Advice in a Troubled World event page on the CSPC website,

Sir Peter Gluckman ONZ FRS is the first Chief Science Advisor to the Prime Minister of New Zealand, having been appointed in 2009. He is also science envoy and advisor to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. He is chair of the International Network of Government Science Advice (INGSA), which operates under the aegis of the international Council of Science (ICSU). He chairs the APEC Chief Science Advisors and Equivalents group and is the coordinator of the secretariat of Small Advanced Economies Initiative.  In 2016 he received the AAAS award in Science Diplomacy. He trained as a pediatric and biomedical scientist and holds a Distinguished University Professorship at the Liggins Institute of the University of Auckland. He has published over 700 scientific papers and several technical and popular science books. He has received the highest scientific (Rutherford medal) and civilian (Order of New Zealand, limited to 20 living persons) honours in NZ and numerous international scientific awards. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of London, a member of the National Academy of Medicine (USA) and a fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences (UK).

I listened to the entire video and Gluckman presented a thoughtful, nuanced lecture in which he also mentioned Calestous Juma and his 2016 book, Innovation and Its Enemies (btw, I will be writing a commentary about Juma’s extraordinary effort). He also referenced the concepts of post-truth and post-trust, and made an argument for viewing evidence-based science as part of the larger policymaking process rather than the dominant or only factor. From the Science Advice in a Troubled World event page,

Lecture Introduction

The world is facing many challenges from environmental degradation and climate change to global health issues, and many more.  Societal relationships are changing; sources of information, reliable and otherwise, and their transmission are affecting the nature of public policy.

Within this context the question arises; how can scientific advice to governments help address these emerging issues in a more unstable and uncertain world?
The relationship between science and politics is complex and the challenges at their interface are growing. What does scientific advice mean within this context?
How can science better inform policy where decision making is increasingly made against a background of post-truth polemic?

I’m not in perfect agreement with Gluckman with regard to post-truth as I have been influenced by an essay of Steve Fuller’s suggesting that science too can be post-truth. (Fuller’s essay was highlighted in my Jan. 6, 2017 posting.)

Gluckman seems to be wielding a fair amount of influence on the Canadian scene. This is his second CSPC visit in the last few months. He was an invited speaker at the Eighth Annual CSPC conference in November 2016 and, while he’s here in Jan. 2017, he’s chairing the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) International Panel on Peer Review. (The CIHR is one of Canada’s three major government funding agencies for the sciences.)

In other places too, he’s going to be a member of a panel at the University of Oxford Martin School in later January 2017. From the “Is a post-truth world a post-expert world?” event page on the Oxford Martin webspace,

Winston Churchill advised that “experts should be on tap but never on top”. In 2017, is a post-truth world a post-expert world? What does this mean for future debates on difficult policy issues? And what place can researchers usefully occupy in an academic landscape that emphasises policy impact but a political landscape that has become wary of experts? Join us for a lively discussion on academia and the provision of policy advice, examining the role of evidence and experts and exploring how gaps with the public and politicians might be bridged.

This event will be chaired by Achim Steiner, Director of the Oxford Martin School and former Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme, with panellists including Oxford Martin Visiting Fellow Professor Sir Peter Gluckman, Chief Science Advisor to the Prime Minister of New Zealand and Chair of the International Network for Government Science Advice; Dr Gemma Harper, Deputy Director for Marine Policy and Evidence and Chief Social Scientist in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and Professor Stefan Dercon, Chief Economist of the Department for International Development (DFID) and Professor of Economic Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government.

This discussion will be followed by a drinks reception, all welcome.

Here are the logistics should you be lucky enough to be able to attend (from the event page),

25 January 2017 17:00 – 18:15

Lecture Theatre, Oxford Martin School

34 Broad Street (corner of Holywell and Catte Streets)
Oxford
OX1 3BD

Registration ((right hand column) is free.

Finally, Gluckman has published a paper on the digital economy as of Nov. 2016, which can be found here (PDF).

Prawn (shrimp) shopping bags and saving the earth

Using a material (shrimp shells) that is disposed of as waste to create a biodegradable product (shopping bags) can only be described as a major win. A Jan. 10, 2017 news item on Nanowerk makes the announcement,

Bioengineers at The University of Nottingham are trialling how to use shrimp shells to make biodegradable shopping bags, as a ‘green’ alternative to oil-based plastic, and as a new food packaging material to extend product shelf life.

The new material for these affordable ‘eco-friendly’ bags is being optimised for Egyptian conditions, as effective waste management is one of the country’s biggest challenges.

An expert in testing the properties of materials, Dr Nicola Everitt from the Faculty of Engineering at Nottingham, is leading the research together with academics at Nile University in Egypt.

“Non-degradable plastic packaging is causing environmental and public health problems in Egypt, including contamination of water supplies which particularly affects living conditions of the poor,” explains Dr Everitt.

Natural biopolymer products made from plant materials are a ‘green’ alternative growing in popularity, but with competition for land with food crops, it is not a viable solution in Egypt.

A Jan. 10, 2017 University of Nottingham press release, which originated the news item,expands on the theme,

This new project aims to turn shrimp shells, which are a part of the country’s waste problem into part of the solution.

Dr Everitt said: “Use of a degradable biopolymer made of prawn shells for carrier bags would lead to lower carbon emissions and reduce food and packaging waste accumulating in the streets or at illegal dump sites. It could also make exports more acceptable to a foreign market within a 10-15-year time frame. All priorities at a national level in Egypt.”

Degradable nanocomposite material

The research is being undertaken to produce an innovative biopolymer nanocomposite material which is degradable, affordable and suitable for shopping bags and food packaging.

Chitosan is a man-made polymer derived from the organic compound chitin, which is extracted from shrimp shells, first using acid (to remove the calcium carbonate “backbone” of the crustacean shell) and then alkali (to produce the long molecular chains which make up the biopolymer).

The dried chitosan flakes can then be dissolved into solution and polymer film made by conventional processing techniques.

Chitosan was chosen because it is a promising biodegradable polymer already used in pharmaceutical packaging due to its antimicrobial, antibacterial and biocompatible properties. The second strand of the project is to develop an active polymer film that absorbs oxygen.

Enhancing food shelf life and cutting food waste

This future generation food packaging could have the ability to enhance food shelf life with high efficiency and low energy consumption, making a positive impact on food wastage in many countries.

If successful, Dr Everitt plans to approach UK packaging manufacturers with the product.

Additionally, the research aims to identify a production route by which these degradable biopolymer materials for shopping bags and food packaging could be manufactured.

I also found the funding for this project to be of interest (from the press release),

The project is sponsored by the Newton Fund and the Newton-Mosharafa Fund grant and is one of 13 Newton-funded collaborations for The University of Nottingham.

The collaborations, which are designed to tackle community issues through science and innovation, with links formed with countries such as Brazil, Egypt, Philippines and Indonesia.

Since the Newton Fund was established in 2014, the University has been awarded a total of £4.5m in funding. It also boasts the highest number of institutional-led collaborations.

Professor Nick Miles Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Global Engagement said: “The University of Nottingham has a long and established record in global collaboration and research.

The Newton Fund plays to these strengths and enables us to work with institutions around the world to solve some of the most pressing issues facing communities.”

From a total of 68 universities, The University of Nottingham has emerged as the top awardee of British Council Newton Fund Institutional Links grants (13) and is joint top awardee from a total of 160 institutions competing for British Council Newton Fund Researcher Links Workshop awards (6).

Professor Miles added: “This is testament to the incredible research taking place across the University – both here in the UK and in the campuses in Malaysia and China – and underlines the strength of our research partnerships around the world.”

That’s it!

Are there any leaders in the ‘graphene race’?

Tom Eldridge, a director and co-founder of Fullerex, has written a Jan. 5, 2017 essay titled: Is China still leading the graphene race? for Nanotechnology Now. Before getting to the essay, here’s a bit more about Fullerex and Tom Eldridge’s qualifications. From Fullerex’s LinkedIn description,

Fullerex is a leading independent broker of nanomaterials and nano-intermediates. Our mission is to support the advancement of nanotechnology in creating radical, transformative and sustainable improvement to society. We are dedicated to achieving these aims by accelerating the commercialisation and usage of nanomaterials across industry and beyond. Fullerex is active in market development and physical trading of advanced materials. We generate demand for nanomaterials across synergistic markets by stimulating innovation with end-users and ensuring robust supply chains are in place to address the growing commercial trade interest. Our end-user markets include Polymers and Polymer Composites, Coatings, Tyre and Rubber, Cementitious Composites, 3D Printing and Printed Electronics, the Energy sector, Lubricating Oils and Functional Fluids. The materials we cover: Nanomaterials: Includes fullerenes, carbon nanotubes and graphene, metal and metal oxide nanoparticles, and organic-inorganic hybrids. Supplied as raw nanopowders or ready-to-use dispersions and concentrates. Nano-intermediates: Producer goods and semi-finished products such as nano-enabled coatings, polymer masterbatches, conductive inks, thermal interface materials and catalysts.

As for Tom Eldridge, here’s more about him, his brother, and the company from the Fullerex About page,

Fullerex was founded by Joe and Tom Eldridge, brothers with a keen interest in nanotechnology and the associated emerging market for nanomaterials.

Joe has a strong background in trading with nearly 10 years’ experience as a stockbroker, managing client accounts for European Equities and FX. At University he read Mathematics at Imperial College London gaining a BSc degree and has closely followed the markets for disruptive technologies and advanced materials for a number of years.

Tom worked in the City of London for 7 years in commercial roles throughout his professional career, with an expertise in market data, financial and regulatory news. In his academic background, he earned a BSc degree in Physics and Philosophy at Kings College London and is a member of the Institute of Physics.

As a result, Fullerex has the strong management composition that allows the company to support the growth of the nascent and highly promising nanomaterials industry. Fullerex is a flexible company with drive, enthusiasm and experience, committed to aiding the development of this market.

Getting back to the matter at hand, that’s a rather provocative title for Tom Eldridge’s essay,. given that he’s a Brit and (I believe) the Brits viewed themselves as leaders in the ‘graphene race’ but he offers a more nuanced analysis than might be expected from the title. First, the patent landscape (from Eldridge’s Jan. 5, 2017 essay),

As competition to exploit the “wonder material” has intensified around the world, detailed reports have so far been published which set out an in-depth depiction of the global patent landscape for graphene, notably from CambridgeIP and the UK Intellectual Property Office, in 2013 and 2015 respectively. Ostensibly the number of patents and patent applications both indicated that China was leading the innovation in graphene technology. However, on closer inspection it became less clear as to how closely the patent figures themselves reflect actual progress and whether this will translate into real economic impact. Some of the main reasons to be doubtful included:

– 98% of the Chinese patent applications only cover China, so therefore have no worldwide monopoly.
– A large number of the Chinese patents are filed in December, possibly due to demand to meet patent quotas. The implication being that the patent filings follow a politically driven agenda, rather than a purely innovation or commercially driven agenda.
– In general, inventors could be more likely to file for patent protection in some countries rather than others e.g. for tax purposes. Which therefore does not give a truly accurate picture of where all the actual research activity is based.
– Measuring the proportion of graphene related patents to overall patents is more indicative of graphene specialisation, which shows that Singapore has the largest proportion of graphene patents, followed by China, then South Korea.

(Intellectual Property Office, 2015), (Ellis, 2015), (CambridgeIP, 2013)

Then, there’s the question of production,

Following the recent launch of the latest edition of the Bulk Graphene Pricing Report, which is available exclusively through The Graphene Council, Fullerex has updated its comprehensive list of graphene producers worldwide, and below is a summary of the number of graphene producers by country in 2017.

Summary Table Showing the Number of Graphene Producers by Country and Region

The total number of graphene producers identified is 142, across 27 countries. This research expands upon previous surveys of the graphene industry, such as the big data analysis performed by Nesta in 2015 (Shapira, 2015). The study by Nesta [formerly  NESTA, National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts) is an independent charity that works to increase the innovation capacity of the UK; see Wikipedia here for more about NESTA] revealed 65 producers throughout 16 countries but was unable to glean accurate data on producers in Asia, particularly China.

As we can now see however from the data collected by Fullerex, China has the largest number of graphene producers, followed by the USA, and then the UK.

In addition to having more companies active in the production and sale of graphene than any other country, China also holds about 2/3rds of the global production capacity, according to Fullerex.

Eldridge goes on to note that the ‘graphene industry’ won’t truly grow and develop until there are substantive applications for the material. He also suggests taking another look at the production figures,

As with the patent landscape, rather than looking at the absolute figures, we can review the numbers in relative terms. For instance, if we normalise to account for the differences in the size of each country, by looking at the number of producers as a proportion of GDP, we see the following: Spain (7.18), UK (4.48), India (3.73), China (3.57), Canada (3.28) [emphasis mine], USA (1.79) (United Nations, 2013).

Unsurprisingly, each leading country has a national strategy for economic development which involves graphene prominently.

For instance, The Spanish Council for Scientific Research has lent 9 of its institutes along with 10 universities and other public R&D labs involved in coordinating graphene projects with industry.

The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada [NSERC] has placed graphene as one of five research topics in its target area of “Advanced Manufacturing” for Strategic Partnership Grants.

The UK government highlights advanced materials as one of its Eight Great Technologies, within which graphene is a major part of, having received investment for the NGI and GEIC buildings, along with EPSRC and Innovate UK projects. I wrote previously about the UK punching above its weight in terms of research, ( http://fullerex.com/index.php/articles/130-the-uk-needs-an-industrial-revolution-can-graphene-deliver/ ) but that R&D spending relative to GDP was too low compared to other developed nations. It is good to see that investment into graphene production in the UK is bucking that trend, and we should anticipate this will provide a positive economic outcome.

Yes, I’m  particularly interested in the fact Canada becomes more important as a producer when the numbers are relative but it is interesting to compare the chart with Eldridge’s text and to note how importance shifts depending on what numbers are being considered.

I recommend reading Eldridge’s piece in its entirety.

A few notes about graphene in Canada

By the way, the information in Eldridge’s essay about NSERC’s placement of graphene as a target area for grants is news to me. (As I have often noted here, I get more information about the Canadian nano scene from international sources than I do from our national sources.)

Happily I do get some home news such as a Jan. 5, 2017 email update from Lomiko Metals, a Canadian junior exploration company focused on graphite and lithium. The email provides the latest information from the company (as I’m not an expert in business or mining this is not an endorsement),

On December 13, 2016 we were excited to announce the completion of our drill program at the La Loutre flake graphite property. We received very positive results from our 1550 meter drilling program in 2015 in the area we are drilling now. In that release I stated, “”The intercepts of multiple zones of mineralization in the Refractory Zone where we have reported high grade intercepts previously is a very promising sign. The samples have been rushed to the ALS Laboratory for full assay testing,” We hope to have the results of those assays shortly.

December 16, 2016 Lomiko announced a 10:1 roll back of our shares. We believe that this roll back is important as we work towards securing long term equity financing for the company. Lomiko began trading on the basis of the roll back on December 19.

We believe that Graphite has a bright future because of the many new products that will rely on the material. I have attached a link to a video on Lomiko, Graphite and Graphene.  

https://youtu.be/Y–Y_Ub6oC4

January 3, 2017 Lomiko announced the extension and modification of its option agreements with Canadian Strategic Metals Inc. for the La Loutre and Lac des Iles properties. The effect of this extension is to give Lomiko additional time to complete the required work under the agreements.

Going forward Lomiko is in a much stronger position as the result of our share roll back. Potential equity funders who are very interested in our forthcoming assay results from La Loutre and the overall prospects of the company, have been reassured by our share consolidation.

Looking forward to 2017, we anticipate the assays of the La Loutre drilling to be delivered in the next 90 days, sooner we hope. We also anticipate additional equity funding will become available for the further exploration and delineation of the La Loutre and Lac des Iles properties and deposits.

More generally, we are confident that the market for large flake graphite will become firmer in 2017. Lomiko’s strategy of identifying near surface, ready to mine, graphite nodes puts us in the position to take advantage of improvements in the graphite price without having to commit large sums to massive mine development. As we identify and analyze the graphite nodes we are finding we increase the potential resources of the company. 2017 should see significantly improved resource estimates for Lomiko’s properties.

As I wasn’t familiar with the term ‘roll back of shares’, I looked it up and found this in an April 18, 2012 posting by Dudley Pierce Baker on kitco.com,

As a general rule, we hate to see an announcement of a share rollback, however, there exceptions which we cover below. Investors should always be aware that if a company has, say over 150 million shares outstanding, in our opinion, it is a potential candidate for a rollback and the announcement should not come as a surprise.

Weak markets, a low share price, a large number of shares outstanding, little or no cash and you have a company which is an idea candidate for a rollback.

The basic concept of a rollback or consolidation in a company’s shares is rather simple.

We are witnessing a few cases of rollbacks not with the purpose of raising more money but rather to facilitate the listing of the company’s shares on the NYSE [New York Stock Exchange] Amex.

I have no idea what situation Lomiko finds itself in but it should be noted that graphere research has been active since 2004 when the first graphene sheets were extracted from graphite. This is a relatively new field of endeavour and Lomiko (along with other companies) is in the position of pioneering the effort here in Canada. That said, there are many competitors to graphene and major international race to commercialize nanotechnology-enabled products.

Are there any leaders in the ‘graphene race?

Getting back to the question in the headline, I don’t think there are any leaders at the moment. No one seems to have what they used to call “a killer app,” that one application/product that everyone wants and which drive demand for graphene.

Drip dry housing

This piece on new construction materials does have a nanotechnology aspect although it’s not made clear exactly how nanotechnology plays a role.

From a Dec. 28, 2016 news item on phys.org (Note: A link has been removed),

The construction industry is preparing to use textiles from the clothing and footwear industries. Gore-Tex-like membranes, which are usually found in weather-proof jackets and trekking shoes, are now being studied to build breathable, water-resistant walls. Tyvek is one such synthetic textile being used as a “raincoat” for homes.

You can find out more about Tyvek here.on the Dupont website.

A Dec. 21, 2016 press release by Chiara Cecchi for Youris ((European Research Media Center), which originated the news item, proceeds with more about textile-type construction materials,

Camping tents, which have been used for ages to protect against wind, ultra-violet rays and rain, have also inspired the modern construction industry, or “buildtech sector”. This new field of research focuses on the different fibres (animal-based such as wool or silk, plant-based such as linen and cotton and synthetic such as polyester and rayon) in order to develop technical or high-performance materials, thus improving the quality of construction, especially for buildings, dams, bridges, tunnels and roads. This is due to the fibres’ mechanical properties, such as lightness, strength, and also resistance to many factors like creep, deterioration by chemicals and pollutants in the air or rain.

“Textiles play an important role in the modernisation of infrastructure and in sustainable buildings”, explains Andrea Bassi, professor at the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (DICA), Politecnico of Milan, “Nylon and fiberglass are mixed with traditional fibres to control thermal and acoustic insulation in walls, façades and roofs. Technological innovation in materials, which includes nanotechnologies [emphasis mine] combined with traditional textiles used in clothes, enables buildings and other constructions to be designed using textiles containing steel polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or ethylene tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE). This gives the materials new antibacterial, antifungal and antimycotic properties in addition to being antistatic, sound-absorbing and water-resistant”.

Rooflys is another example. In this case, coated black woven textiles are placed under the roof to protect roof insulation from mould. These building textiles have also been tested for fire resistance, nail sealability, water and vapour impermeability, wind and UV resistance.

Photo: Production line at the co-operative enterprise CAVAC Biomatériaux, France. Natural fibres processed into a continuous mat (biofib) – Martin Ansell, BRE CICM, University of Bath, UK

In Spain three researchers from the Technical University of Madrid (UPM) have developed a new panel made with textile waste. They claim that it can significantly enhance both the thermal and acoustic conditions of buildings, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions and the energy impact associated with the development of construction materials.

Besides textiles, innovative natural fibre composite materials are a parallel field of the research on insulators that can preserve indoor air quality. These bio-based materials, such as straw and hemp, can reduce the incidence of mould growth because they breathe. The breathability of materials refers to their ability to absorb and desorb moisture naturally”, says expert Finlay White from Modcell, who contributed to the construction of what they claim are the world’s first commercially available straw houses, “For example, highly insulated buildings with poor ventilation can build-up high levels of moisture in the air. If the moisture meets a cool surface it will condensate and producing mould, unless it is managed. Bio-based materials have the means to absorb moisture so that the risk of condensation is reduced, preventing the potential for mould growth”.

The Bristol-based green technology firm [Modcell] is collaborating with the European Isobio project, which is testing bio-based insulators which perform 20% better than conventional materials. “This would lead to a 5% total energy reduction over the lifecycle of a building”, explains Martin Ansell, from BRE Centre for Innovative Construction Materials (BRE CICM), University of Bath, UK, another partner of the project.

“Costs would also be reduced. We are evaluating the thermal and hygroscopic properties of a range of plant-derived by-products including hemp, jute, rape and straw fibres plus corn cob residues. Advanced sol-gel coatings are being deposited on these fibres to optimise these properties in order to produce highly insulating and breathable construction materials”, Ansell concludes.

You can find Modcell here.

Here’s another image, which I believe is a closeup of the processed fibre shown in the above,

Production line at the co-operative enterprise CAVAC Biomatériaux, France. Natural fibres processed into a continuous mat (biofib) – Martin Ansell, BRE CICM, University of Bath, UK [Note: This caption appears to be a copy of the caption for the previous image]

Nanoparticle ‘caterpillars’ and immune system ‘crows’

This University of Colorado work fits in nicely with other efforts to ensure that nanoparticle medical delivery systems get to their destinations. From a Dec. 19, 2016 news item on phys.org,

In the lab, doctors can attach chemotherapy to nanoparticles that target tumors, and can use nanoparticles to enhance imaging with MRI, PET and CT scans. Unfortunately, nanoparticles look a lot like pathogens – introducing nanoparticles to the human body can lead to immune system activation in which, at best, nanoparticles are cleared before accomplishing their purpose, and at worst, the onset of dangerous allergic reaction. A University of Colorado Cancer Center paper published today [Dec. 19, 2016] in the journal Nature Nanotechnology details how the immune system recognizes nanoparticles, potentially paving the way to counteract or avoid this detection.

Specifically, the study worked with dextran-coated iron oxide nanoparticles, a promising and versatile class of particles used as drug-delivery vehicles and MRI contrast enhancers in many studies. As their name implies, the particles are tiny flecks of iron oxide encrusted with sugar chains.

“We used several sophisticated microscopy approaches to understand that the particles basically look like caterpillars,” says Dmitri Simberg, PhD, investigator at the CU Cancer Center and assistant professor in the Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, the paper’s senior author.

The comparison is striking: the iron oxide particle is the caterpillar’s body, which is surrounded by fine hairs of dextran.

Caption: University of Colorado Cancer Study shows how nanoparticles activate the complement system, potentially paving the way for expanded use of these technologies.
Credit: University of Colorado Cancer Center

A Dec. 19, 2016 University of Colorado news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, describes the work in more detail,

If Simberg’s dextran-coated iron oxide nanoparticles are caterpillars, then the immune system is a fat crow that would eat them – that is, if it can find them. In fact, the immune system has evolved for exactly this purpose – to find and “eat” foreign particles – and rather than one homogenous entity is actually composed of a handful of interrelated systems, each specialized to counteract a specific form of invading particle.

Simberg’s previous work shows that it is the immune subcomponent called the complement system that most challenges nanoparticles. Basically, the complement system is a group of just over 30 proteins that circulate through the blood and attach to invading particles and pathogens. In humans, complement system activation requires that three proteins come together on a particle -C3b, Bb and properdin – which form a stable complex called C3-convertase.

“The whole complement system activation starts with the assembly of C3-convertase,” Simberg says. “In this paper, we ask the question of how the complement proteins actually recognize the nanoparticle surface. How is this whole reaction triggered?”

First, it was clear that the dextran coating that was supposed to protect the nanoparticles from human complement attack was not doing its job. Simberg and colleagues could see complement proteins literally invade the barrier of dextran hairs.

“Electron microscopy images show protein getting inside the particle to touch the iron oxide core,” Simberg says.

In fact, as long as the nanoparticle coating allowed the nanoparticle to absorb proteins from blood, the C3 convertase was assembled and activated on these proteins. The composition of the coating was irrelevant – if any blood protein was able to bind to nanoparticles, it always led to complement activation. Moreover, Simberg and colleagues also showed that complement system activation is a dynamic and ongoing process – blood proteins and C3 convertase constantly dissociate from nanoparticles, and new proteins and C3 convertases bind to the particles, continuing the cascade of immune system activation. The group also demonstrated that this dynamic assembly of complement proteins occurs not only in the test tubes but also in living organisms as particles circulate in blood.

Simberg suggests that the work points to challenges and three possible strategies to avoid complement system activation by nanoparticles: “First, we could try to change the nanoparticle coating so that it can’t absorb proteins, which is a difficult task; second, we could better understand the composition of proteins absorbed from blood on the particle surface that allow it to bind complement proteins; and third, there are natural inhibitors of complement activation – for example blood Factor H – but in the context of nanoparticles, it’s not strong enough to stop complement activation. Perhaps we could get nanoparticles to attract more Factor H to decrease this activation.”

At one point, the concept of nanomedicine seemed as if it would be simple – engineers and chemists would make a nanoparticle with affinity for tumor tissue and then attach a drug molecule to it. Or they would inject nanoparticles into patients that would improve the resolution of diagnostic imaging. When the realities associated with the use of nanoparticles in the landscape of the human immune system proved more challenging, many researchers realized the need to step back from possible clinical use to better understand the mechanisms that challenge nanoparticle use.

“This basic groundwork is absolutely necessary,” says Seyed Moein Moghimi, PhD, nanotechnologist at Durham University, UK, and the coauthor of the Simberg paper. “It’s essential that we learn to control the process of immune recognition so that we can bridge between the promise that nanoparticles demonstrate in the lab and their use with real patients in the real world.”

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

Complement proteins bind to nanoparticle protein corona and undergo dynamic exchange in vivo by Fangfang Chen, Guankui Wang, James I. Griffin, Barbara Brenneman, Nirmal K. Banda, V. Michael Holers, Donald S. Backos, LinPing Wu, Seyed Moein Moghimi, & Dmitri Simberg. Nature Nanotechnology  (2016) doi:10.1038/nnano.2016.269 19 December 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.

I have a few previous postings about nanoparticles as drug delivery systems which have yet to fulfill their promise. There’s the April 27, 2016 posting (How many nanoparticle-based drugs does it take to kill a cancer tumour? More than 1%) and the Sept. 9, 2016 posting (Discovering how the liver prevents nanoparticles from reaching cancer cells).