Tag Archives: UK

Bacteria and an anti-superbug coating from Ireland’s Sligo Institute of Technology

Unlike today’s (April 28, 2016) earlier piece about dealing with bacteria, the focus for this research is on superbugs and not the bacteria which form biofilm on medical implants and such. An April 21, 2016 news item on RTE News makes the announcement about a new means of dealing with superbugs,

A discovery by a team of scientists in Ireland could stem the spread of deadly superbugs predicted to kill millions of people worldwide over the coming decades.

The research has found an agent that can be baked into everyday items like smart-phones and door handles to combat the likes of MRSA and E. coli.

The nanotechnology has a 99.9 % kill rate of potentially lethal and drug-resistant bacteria, they say.

Lead scientist Professor Suresh C. Pillai, of Sligo Institute of Technology’s Nanotechnology Research Group, says the discovery is the culmination of 12 years work.

“This is a game changer,” he said.

“This breakthrough will change the whole fight against superbugs. It can effectively control the spread of bacteria.”

An April 21, 2016 Sligo Institute of Technology press release provides some context for the work and a few details about the coating,

News of the discovery comes just days after UK Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne warned that superbugs could become deadlier than cancer and are on course to kill 10 million people globally by 2050.

Speaking at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in Washington, Mr Osborne warned that the problem would slash global GDP by around €100 trillion if it was not tackled.

Using nanotechnology, the discovery is an effective and practical antimicrobial solution — an agent that kills microorganisms or inhibits their growth — that can be used to protect a range of everyday items.

Items include anything made from glass, metallics and ceramics including computer or tablet screens, smartphones, ATMs, door handles, TVs, handrails, lifts, urinals, toilet seats, fridges, microwaves and ceramic floor or wall tiles.

It will be of particular use in hospitals and medical facilities which are losing the battle against the spread of killer superbugs.

Other common uses would include in swimming pools and public buildings, on glass in public buses and trains, sneeze guards protecting food in delis and restaurants as well as in clean rooms in the medical sector.

“It’s absolutely wonderful to finally be at this stage. This breakthrough will change the whole fight against superbugs. It can effectvely control the spread of bacteria,” said Prof. Pillai.

He continued: “Every single person has a sea of bacteria on their hands. The mobile phone is the most contaminated personal item that we can have. Bacteria grows on the phone and can live there for up to five months. As it is contaminated with proteins from saliva and from the hand, It’s fertile land for bacteria and has been shown to carry 30 times more bacteria than a toilet seat.”

The research started at Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT)’s CREST and involves scientists now based at IT Sligo, Dublin City University (DCU) and the University of Surrey. Major researchers included Dr Joanna Carroll and Dr Nigel S. Leyland.

It has been funded for the past eight years by John Browne, founder and CEO of Kastus Technologies Ltd, who is bringing the product to a global market. He was also supported by significant investment from Enterprise Ireland.

As there is nothing that will effectively kill antibiotic-resistant superbugs completely from the surface of items, scientists have been searching for a way to prevent the spread.

This has been in the form of building or ‘baking’ antimicrobial surfaces into products during the manufacturing process.

However, until now, all these materials were toxic or needed UV light in order to make them work. This meant they were not practical for indoor use and had limited commercial application.

“The challenge was the preparation of a solution that was activated by indoor light rather than UV light and we have now done that,” said Prof Pillai.

The new water-based solution can be sprayed onto any glass, ceramic or metallic surface during the production process, rendering the surface 99.9 per cent resistant to superbugs like MRSA, E. coli and other fungi. [emphasis mine]

The solution is sprayed on the product — such as a smartphone glass surface — and then ‘baked’ into it, forming a super-hard surface. The coating is transparent, permanent and scratch resistant and actually forms a harder surface than the original glass or ceramic material.

The team first developed the revolutionary material to work on ceramics and has spent the last five years adapting the formula – which is non-toxic and has no harmful bi-products ‑- to make it work on glass and metallic surfaces.

Research is now underway by the group on how to adapt the solution for use in plastics and paint, allowing even wider use of the protective material.

Prof Pillai, Kastus and the team have obtained a US and a UK patent on the unique process with a number of global patent applications pending. It is rare for such an academic scientific discovery to have such commercial viability.

“I was sold on this from the first moment I heard about it. It’s been a long road to here but it was such a compelling story that it was hard to walk away from so I had to see it through to the end,” said John Browne, Kastus CEO.

He continued: “This is a game changer. The uniqueness of antimicrobia surface treatment means that the applications for it in the real world are endless. The multinational glass manufacturers we are in negotiations with to sell the product to have been searching for years to come up with such a solution but have failed.”

If the coating kills 99.9%, doesn’t that mean 0.1% are immune? If that’s the case, won’t they reproduce and eventually establish themselves as a new kind of superbug?

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

Highly Efficient F, Cu doped TiO2 anti-bacterial visible light active photocatalytic coatings to combat hospital-acquired infections by Nigel S. Leyland, Joanna Podporska-Carroll, John Browne, Steven J. Hinder, Brid Quilty, & Suresh C. Pillai. Scientific Reports 6, Article number: 24770 (2016) doi:10.1038/srep24770 Published online: 21 April 2016

This paper is open access.

A new state for water molecules

ORNL researchers discovered that water in beryl displays some unique and unexpected characteristics. (Photo by Jeff Scovil)

ORNL researchers discovered that water in beryl displays some unique and unexpected characteristics. (Photo by Jeff Scovil)

That striking image from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL; US) depicting a new state for water molecules looks like mixed media: photography and drawing/illustration. Thankfully, an April 22, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily provides a text description,

Neutron scattering and computational modeling have revealed unique and unexpected behavior of water molecules under extreme confinement that is unmatched by any known gas, liquid or solid states.

In a paper published in Physical Review Letters, researchers at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory [ORNL] describe a new tunneling state of water molecules confined in hexagonal ultra-small channels — 5 angstrom across — of the mineral beryl. An angstrom is 1/10-billionth of a meter, and individual atoms are typically about 1 angstrom in diameter.

The discovery, made possible with experiments at ORNL’s Spallation Neutron Source and the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in the United Kingdom, demonstrates features of water under ultra confinement in rocks, soil and cell walls, which scientists predict will be of interest across many disciplines.

An April 22, 2016 ORNL news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, offers more detail,

“At low temperatures, this tunneling water exhibits quantum motion through the separating potential walls, which is forbidden in the classical world,” said lead author Alexander Kolesnikov of ORNL’s Chemical and Engineering Materials Division. “This means that the oxygen and hydrogen atoms of the water molecule are ‘delocalized’ and therefore simultaneously present in all six symmetrically equivalent positions in the channel at the same time. It’s one of those phenomena that only occur in quantum mechanics and has no parallel in our everyday experience.”

The existence of the tunneling state of water shown in ORNL’s study should help scientists better describe the thermodynamic properties and behavior of water in highly confined environments such as water diffusion and transport in the channels of cell membranes, in carbon nanotubes and along grain boundaries and at mineral interfaces in a host of geological environments.

ORNL co-author Lawrence Anovitz noted that the discovery is apt to spark discussions among materials, biological, geological and computational scientists as they attempt to explain the mechanism behind this phenomenon and understand how it applies to their materials.

“This discovery represents a new fundamental understanding of the behavior of water and the way water utilizes energy,” Anovitz said. “It’s also interesting to think that those water molecules in your aquamarine or emerald ring – blue and green varieties of beryl – are undergoing the same quantum tunneling we’ve seen in our experiments.”

While previous studies have observed tunneling of atomic hydrogen in other systems, the ORNL discovery that water exhibits such tunneling behavior is unprecedented. The neutron scattering and computational chemistry experiments showed that, in the tunneling state, the water molecules are delocalized around a ring so the water molecule assumes an unusual double top-like shape.

“The average kinetic energy of the water protons directly obtained from the neutron experiment is a measure of their motion at almost absolute zero temperature and is about 30 percent less than it is in bulk liquid or solid water,” Kolesnikov said. “This is in complete disagreement with accepted models based on the energies of its vibrational modes.”

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

Quantum Tunneling of Water in Beryl: A New State of the Water Molecule by Alexander I. Kolesnikov, George F. Reiter, Narayani Choudhury, Timothy R. Prisk, Eugene Mamontov, Andrey Podlesnyak, George Ehlers, Andrew G. Seel, David J. Wesolowski, and Lawrence M. Anovitz.
Phys. Rev. Lett. 116, 167802 – Published 22 April 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.

Graphene Flagship high points

The European Union’s Graphene Flagship project has provided a series of highlights in place of an overview for the project’s ramp-up phase (in 2013 the Graphene Flagship was announced as one of two winners of a science competition, the other winner was the Human Brain Project, with two prizes of 1B Euros for each project). Here are the highlights from the April 19, 2016 Graphene Flagship press release,

Graphene and Neurons – the Best of Friends

Flagship researchers have shown that it is possible to interface untreated graphene with neuron cells whilst maintaining the integrity of these vital cells [1]. This result is a significant first step towards using graphene to produce better deep brain implants which can both harness and control the brain.

Graphene and Neurons
 

This paper emerged from the Graphene Flagship Work Package Health and Environment. Prof. Prato, the WP leader from the University of Trieste in Italy, commented that “We are currently involved in frontline research in graphene technology towards biomedical applications, exploring the interactions between graphene nano- and micro-sheets with the sophisticated signalling machinery of nerve cells. Our work is a first step in that direction.”

[1] Fabbro A., et al., Graphene-Based Interfaces do not Alter Target Nerve Cells. ACS Nano, 10 (1), 615 (2016).

Pressure Sensing with Graphene: Quite a Squeeze

The Graphene Flagship developed a small, robust, highly efficient squeeze film pressure sensor [2]. Pressure sensors are present in most mobile handsets and by replacing current sensor membranes with a graphene membrane they allow the sensor to decrease in size and significantly increase its responsiveness and lifetime.

Discussing this work which emerged from the Graphene Flagship Work Package Sensors is the paper’s lead author, Robin Dolleman from the Technical University of Delft in The Netherlands “After spending a year modelling various systems the idea of the squeeze-film pressure sensor was formed. Funding from the Graphene Flagship provided the opportunity to perform the experiments and we obtained very good results. We built a squeeze-film pressure sensor from 31 layers of graphene, which showed a 45 times higher response than silicon based devices, while reducing the area of the device by a factor of 25. Currently, our work is focused on obtaining similar results on monolayer graphene.”

 

[2] Dolleman R. J. et al., Graphene Squeeze-Film Pressure Sensors. Nano Lett., 16, 568 (2016)

Frictionless Graphene


Image caption: A graphene nanoribbon was anchored at the tip of a atomic force microscope and dragged over a gold surface. The observed friction force was extremely low.

Image caption: A graphene nanoribbon was anchored at the tip of a atomic force microscope and dragged over a gold surface. The observed friction force was extremely low.

Research done within the Graphene Flagship, has observed the onset of superlubricity in graphene nanoribbons sliding on a surface, unravelling the role played by ribbon size and elasticity [3]. This important finding opens up the development potential of nanographene frictionless coatings. This research lead by the Graphene Flagship Work Package Nanocomposites also involved researchers from Work Package Materials and Work Package Health and the Environment, a shining example of the inter-disciplinary, cross-collaborative approach to research undertaken within the Graphene Flagship. Discussing this further is the Work Package Nanocomposites Leader, Dr Vincenzo Palermo from CNR National Research Council, Italy “Strengthening the collaboration and interactions with other Flagship Work Packages created added value through a strong exchange of materials, samples and information”.

[3] Kawai S., et al., Superlubricity of graphene nanoribbons on gold surfaces. Science. 351, 6276, 957 (2016) 

​Graphene Paddles Forward

Work undertaken within the Graphene Flagship saw Spanish automotive interiors specialist, and Flagship partner, Grupo Antolin SA work in collaboration with Roman Kayaks to develop an innovative kayak that incorporates graphene into its thermoset polymeric matrices. The use of graphene and related materials results in a significant increase in both impact strength and stiffness, improving the resistance to breakage in critical areas of the boat. Pushing the graphene canoe well beyond the prototype demonstration bubble, Roman Kayaks chose to use the K-1 kayak in the Canoe Marathon World Championships held in September in Gyor, Hungary where the Graphene Canoe was really put through its paces.

Talking further about this collaboration from the Graphene Flagship Work Package Production is the WP leader, Dr Ken Teo from Aixtron Ltd., UK “In the Graphene Flagship project, Work Package Production works as a technology enabler for real-world applications. Here we show the worlds first K-1 kayak (5.2 meters long), using graphene related materials developed by Grupo Antolin. We are very happy to see that graphene is creating value beyond traditional industries.” 

​Graphene Production – a Kitchen Sink Approach

Researchers from the Graphene Flagship have devised a way of producing large quantities of graphene by separating graphite flakes in liquids with a rotating tool that works in much the same way as a kitchen blender [4]. This paves the way to mass production of high quality graphene at a low cost.

The method was produced within the Graphene Flagship Work Package Production and is talked about further here by the WP deputy leader, Prof. Jonathan Coleman from Trinity College Dublin, Ireland “This technique produced graphene at higher rates than most other methods, and produced sheets of 2D materials that will be useful in a range of applications, from printed electronics to energy generation.” 

[4] Paton K.R., et al., Scalable production of large quantities of defect-free few-layer graphene by shear exfoliation in liquids. Nat. Mater. 13, 624 (2014).

Flexible Displays – Rolled Up in your Pocket

Working with researchers from the Graphene Flagship the Flagship partner, FlexEnable, demonstrated the world’s first flexible display with graphene incorporated into its pixel backplane. Combined with an electrophoretic imaging film, the result is a low-power, durable display suitable for use in many and varied environments.

Emerging from the Graphene Flagship Work Package Flexible Electronics this illustrates the power of collaboration.  Talking about this is the WP leader Dr Henrik Sandberg from the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Ltd., Finland “Here we show the power of collaboration. To deliver these flexible demonstrators and prototypes we have seen materials experts working together with components manufacturers and system integrators. These devices will have a potential impact in several emerging fields such as wearables and the Internet of Things.”

​Fibre-Optics Data Boost from Graphene

A team of researches from the Graphene Flagship have demonstrated high-performance photo detectors for infrared fibre-optic communication systems based on wafer-scale graphene [5]. This can increase the amount of information transferred whilst at the same time make the devises smaller and more cost effective.

Discussing this work which emerged from the Graphene Flagship Work Package Optoelectronics is the paper’s lead author, Daniel Schall from AMO, Germany “Graphene has outstanding properties when it comes to the mobility of its electric charge carriers, and this can increase the speed at which electronic devices operate.”

[5] Schall D., et al., 50 GBit/s Photodetectors Based on Wafer-Scale Graphene for Integrated Silicon Photonic Communication Systems. ACS Photonics. 1 (9), 781 (2014)

​Rechargeable Batteries with Graphene

A number of different research groups within the Graphene Flagship are working on rechargeable batteries. One group has developed a graphene-based rechargeable battery of the lithium-ion type used in portable electronic devices [6]. Graphene is incorporated into the battery anode in the form of a spreadable ink containing a suspension of graphene nanoflakes giving an increased energy efficiency of 20%. A second group of researchers have demonstrated a lithium-oxygen battery with high energy density, efficiency and stability [7]. They produced a device with over 90% efficiency that may be recharged more than 2,000 times. Their lithium-oxygen cell features a porous, ‘fluffy’ electrode made from graphene together with additives that alter the chemical reactions at work in the battery.

Graphene Flagship researchers show how the 2D material graphene can improve the energy capacity, efficiency and stability of lithium-oxygen batteries.

Both devices were developed in different groups within the Graphene Flagship Work Package Energy and speaking of the technology further is Prof. Clare Grey from Cambridge University, UK “What we’ve achieved is a significant advance for this technology, and suggests whole new areas for research – we haven’t solved all the problems inherent to this chemistry, but our results do show routes forward towards a practical device”.

[6] Liu T., et al. Cycling Li-O2 batteries via LiOH formation and decomposition. Science. 350, 6260, 530 (2015)

[7] Hassoun J., et al., An Advanced Lithium-Ion Battery Based on a Graphene Anode and a Lithium Iron Phosphate Cathode. Nano Lett., 14 (8), 4901 (2014)

Graphene – What and Why?

Graphene is a two-dimensional material formed by a single atom-thick layer of carbon, with the carbon atoms arranged in a honeycomb-like lattice. This transparent, flexible material has a number of unique properties. For example, it is 100 times stronger than steel, and conducts electricity and heat with great efficiency.

A number of practical applications for graphene are currently being developed. These include flexible and wearable electronics and antennas, sensors, optoelectronics and data communication systems, medical and bioengineering technologies, filtration, super-strong composites, photovoltaics and energy storage.

Graphene and Beyond

The Graphene Flagship also covers other layered materials, as well as hybrids formed by combining graphene with these complementary materials, or with other materials and structures, ranging from polymers, to metals, cement, and traditional semiconductors such as silicon. Graphene is just the first of thousands of possible single layer materials. The Flagship plans to accelerate their journey from laboratory to factory floor.

Especially exciting is the possibility of stacking monolayers of different elements to create materials not found in nature, with properties tailored for specific applications. Such composite layered materials could be combined with other nanomaterials, such as metal nanoparticles, in order to further enhance their properties and uses.​

Graphene – the Fruit of European Scientific Excellence

Europe, North America and Asia are all active centres of graphene R&D, but Europe has special claim to be at the centre of this activity. The ground-breaking experiments on graphene recognised in the award of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics were conducted by European physicists, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, both at Manchester University. Since then, graphene research in Europe has continued apace, with major public funding for specialist centres, and the stimulation of academic-industrial partnerships devoted to graphene and related materials. It is European scientists and engineers who as part of the Graphene Flagship are closely coordinating research efforts, and accelerating the transfer of layered materials from the laboratory to factory floor.

For anyone who would like links to the published papers, you can check out an April 20, 2016 news item featuring the Graphene Flagship highlights on Nanowerk.

Skin as a touchscreen (“smart” hands)

An April 11, 2016 news item on phys.org highlights some research presented at the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) Haptics (touch) Symposium 2016,

Using your skin as a touchscreen has been brought a step closer after UK scientists successfully created tactile sensations on the palm using ultrasound sent through the hand.

The University of Sussex-led study – funded by the Nokia Research Centre and the European Research Council – is the first to find a way for users to feel what they are doing when interacting with displays projected on their hand.

This solves one of the biggest challenges for technology companies who see the human body, particularly the hand, as the ideal display extension for the next generation of smartwatches and other smart devices.

Current ideas rely on vibrations or pins, which both need contact with the palm to work, interrupting the display.

However, this new innovation, called SkinHaptics, sends sensations to the palm from the other side of the hand, leaving the palm free to display the screen.

An April 11, 2016 University of Sussex press release (also on EurekAlert) by James Hakmer, which originated the news item, provides more detail,

The device uses ‘time-reversal’ processing to send ultrasound waves through the hand. This technique is effectively like ripples in water but in reverse – the waves become more targeted as they travel through the hand, ending at a precise point on the palm.

It draws on a rapidly growing field of technology called haptics, which is the science of applying touch sensation and control to interaction with computers and technology.

Professor Sriram Subramanian, who leads the research team at the University of Sussex, says that technologies will inevitably need to engage other senses, such as touch, as we enter what designers are calling an ‘eye-free’ age of technology.

He says: “Wearables are already big business and will only get bigger. But as we wear technology more, it gets smaller and we look at it less, and therefore multisensory capabilities become much more important.

“If you imagine you are on your bike and want to change the volume control on your smartwatch, the interaction space on the watch is very small. So companies are looking at how to extend this space to the hand of the user.

“What we offer people is the ability to feel their actions when they are interacting with the hand.”

The findings were presented at the IEEE Haptics Symposium [April 8 – 11] 2016 in Philadelphia, USA, by the study’s co-author Dr Daniel Spelmezan, a research assistant in the Interact Lab.

There is a video of the work (I was not able to activate sound, if there is any accompanying this video),

The consequence of watching this silent video was that I found the whole thing somewhat mysterious.

With over 150 partners from over 20 countries, the European Union’s Graphene Flagship research initiative unveils its work package devoted to biomedical technologies

An April 11, 2016 news item on Nanowerk announces the Graphene Flagship’s latest work package,

With a budget of €1 billion, the Graphene Flagship represents a new form of joint, coordinated research on an unprecedented scale, forming Europe’s biggest ever research initiative. It was launched in 2013 to bring together academic and industrial researchers to take graphene from the realm of academic laboratories into European society in the timeframe of 10 years. The initiative currently involves over 150 partners from more than 20 European countries. The Graphene Flagship, coordinated by Chalmers University of Technology (Sweden), is implemented around 15 scientific Work Packages on specific science and technology topics, such as fundamental science, materials, health and environment, energy, sensors, flexible electronics and spintronics.

Today [April 11, 2016], the Graphene Flagship announced in Barcelona the creation of a new Work Package devoted to Biomedical Technologies, one emerging application area for graphene and other 2D materials. This initiative is led by Professor Kostas Kostarelos, from the University of Manchester (United Kingdom), and ICREA Professor Jose Antonio Garrido, from the Catalan Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology (ICN2, Spain). The Kick-off event, held in the Casa Convalescència of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB), is co-organised by ICN2 (ICREA Prof Jose Antonio Garrido), Centro Nacional de Microelectrónica (CNM-IMB-CSIC, CIBER-BBN; CSIC Tenured Scientist Dr Rosa Villa), and Institut d’Investigacions Biomèdiques August Pi i Sunyer (IDIBAPS; ICREA Prof Mavi Sánchez-Vives).

An April 11, 2016 ICN2 press release, which originated the news item, provides more detail about the Biomedical Technologies work package and other work packages,

The new Work Package will focus on the development of implants based on graphene and 2D-materials that have therapeutic functionalities for specific clinical outcomes, in disciplines such as neurology, ophthalmology and surgery. It will include research in three main areas: Materials Engineering; Implant Technology & Engineering; and Functionality and Therapeutic Efficacy. The objective is to explore novel implants with therapeutic capacity that will be further developed in the next phases of the Graphene Flagship.

The Materials Engineering area will be devoted to the production, characterisation, chemical modification and optimisation of graphene materials that will be adopted for the design of implants and therapeutic element technologies. Its results will be applied by the Implant Technology and Engineering area on the design of implant technologies. Several teams will work in parallel on retinal, cortical, and deep brain implants, as well as devices to be applied in the periphery nerve system. Finally, The Functionality and Therapeutic Efficacy area activities will centre on development of devices that, in addition to interfacing the nerve system for recording and stimulation of electrical activity, also have therapeutic functionality.

Stimulation therapies will focus on the adoption of graphene materials in implants with stimulation capabilities in Parkinson’s, blindness and epilepsy disease models. On the other hand, biological therapies will focus on the development of graphene materials as transport devices of biological molecules (nucleic acids, protein fragments, peptides) for modulation of neurophysiological processes. Both approaches involve a transversal innovation environment that brings together the efforts of different Work Packages within the Graphene Flagship.

A leading role for Barcelona in Graphene and 2D-Materials

The kick-off meeting of the new Graphene Flagship Work Package takes place in Barcelona because of the strong involvement of local institutions and the high international profile of Catalonia in 2D-materials and biomedical research. Institutions such as the Catalan Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology (ICN2) develop frontier research in a supportive environment which attracts talented researchers from abroad, such as ICREA Research Prof Jose Antonio Garrido, Group Leader of the ICN2 Advanced Electronic Materials and Devices Group and now also Deputy Leader of the Biomedical Technologies Work Package. Until summer 2015 he was leading a research group at the Technische Universität München (Germany).

Further Graphene Flagship events in Barcelona are planned; in May 2016 ICN2 will also host a meeting of the Spintronics Work Package. ICREA Prof Stephan Roche, Group Leader of the ICN2 Theoretical and Computational Nanoscience Group, is the deputy leader of this Work Package led by Prof Bart van Wees, from the University of Groningen (The Netherlands). Another Work Package, on optoelectronics, is led by Prof Frank Koppens from the Institute of Photonic Sciences (ICFO, Spain), with Prof Andrea Ferrari from the University of Cambridge (United Kingdom) as deputy. Thus a number of prominent research institutes in Barcelona are deeply involved in the coordination of this European research initiative.

Kostas Kostarelos, the leader of the Biomedical Technologies Graphene Flagship work package, has been mentioned here before in the context of his blog posts for The Guardian science blog network (see my Aug. 7, 2014 post for a link to his post on metaphors used in medicine).

Drone fly larvae avoid bacterial contamination due to their nanopillars

This is some fascinating bug research. From an April 6, 2016 news item on phys.org,

The immature stage of the drone fly (Eristalis tenax) is known as a “rat-tailed maggot” because it resembles a hairless baby rodent with a “tail” that is actually used as a breathing tube. Rat-tailed maggots are known to live in stagnant, fetid water that is rich in bacteria, fungi, and algae. However, despite this dirty environment, they are able to avoid infection by these microorganisms.

An April 6, 2016 Entomological Society of America news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, describes the findings,

Recently, Matthew Hayes, a cell biologist at the Institute of Ophthalmology at University College London in England, discovered never-before-seen structures that appear to keep the maggot mostly free of bacteria, despite living where microorganisms flourish. …

With scanning and transmission electron microscopes, Hayes carefully examined the larva and saw that much of its body is covered with thin spines, or “nanopillars,” that narrow to sharp points. Once he confirmed the spiky structures were indeed part of the maggot, he noticed a direct relationship between the presence of the spines and the absence of bacteria on the surface of the larva. He speculated that the carpet of spines simply makes it impossible for the bacteria to find enough room to adhere to the larva’s body surface.

Here’s an image of the nanopillars,

Caption: This electron-microscope image expose the spines, or "nanopillars," that poke up from the body of the rat-tailed maggot. The length and density of the spines vary as shown in this cross-section image of the cuticle. Credit: Matthew Hayes

Caption: This electron-microscope image expose the spines, or “nanopillars,” that poke up from the body of the rat-tailed maggot. The length and density of the spines vary as shown in this cross-section image of the cuticle. Credit: Matthew Hayes

Back to the news release,

“They’re much like anti-pigeon spikes that keep the birds away because they can’t find a nice surface to land on,” he said.

Hayes also ventured that the spines could possibly have superoleophobic properties (the ability to repel oils), which would also impede the bacteria from colonizing and forming a biofilm that could ultimately harm or kill the maggot. The composition of the spines is as unique as the structures themselves, Hayes said. Each spine appears to consist of a stack of hollow-cored disks, the largest at the bottom and the smallest at the top.

“What I really think they look like is the baby’s toy with the stack of rings of decreasing size, but on a very small scale,” he said. “I’ve worked in many different fields and looked at lots of different things, and I’ve never seen anything that looks like it.”

This work with the rat-tailed maggot is leading him to examine other insects as well, including the ability of another aquatic invertebrate — the mosquito larva — to thwart bacteria. Such antibacterial properties have applications in many different fields, including ophthalmology and other medical fields where biofilms can foul surgical instruments or implanted devices.

For now, though, he’s thrilled about shedding light on the underappreciated rat-tailed maggot and revealing its spiny armor.

“I’ve loved insects since I was a child, when I would breed butterflies and moths,” he said. “I’m just so chuffed to have discovered something a bit new about insects!”

I am charmed by Hayes’s admission of being “chuffed.”

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

Identification of Nanopillars on the Cuticle of the Aquatic Larvae of the Drone Fly (Diptera: Syrphidae) by Matthew J. Hayes, Timothy P. Levine, Roger H. Wilson. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/jisesa/iew019 36 First published online: 30 March 2016

This is an open access paper.

Not enough talk about nano risks?

It’s not often that a controversy amongst visual artists intersects with a story about carbon nanotubes, risk, and the roles that  scientists play in public discourse.

Nano risks

Dr. Andrew Maynard, Director of the Risk Innovation Lab at Arizona State University, opens the discussion in a March 29, 2016 article for the appropriately named website, The Conversation (Note: Links have been removed),

Back in 2008, carbon nanotubes – exceptionally fine tubes made up of carbon atoms – were making headlines. A new study from the U.K. had just shown that, under some conditions, these long, slender fiber-like tubes could cause harm in mice in the same way that some asbestos fibers do.

As a collaborator in that study, I was at the time heavily involved in exploring the risks and benefits of novel nanoscale materials. Back then, there was intense interest in understanding how materials like this could be dangerous, and how they might be made safer.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago, when carbon nanotubes were in the news again, but for a very different reason. This time, there was outrage not over potential risks, but because the artist Anish Kapoor had been given exclusive rights to a carbon nanotube-based pigment – claimed to be one of the blackest pigments ever made.

The worries that even nanotech proponents had in the early 2000s about possible health and environmental risks – and their impact on investor and consumer confidence – seem to have evaporated.

I had covered the carbon nanotube-based coating in a March 14, 2016 posting here,

Surrey NanoSystems (UK) is billing their Vantablack as the world’s blackest coating and they now have a new product in that line according to a March 10, 2016 company press release (received via email),

A whole range of products can now take advantage of Vantablack’s astonishing characteristics, thanks to the development of a new spray version of the world’s blackest coating material. The new substance, Vantablack S-VIS, is easily applied at large scale to virtually any surface, whilst still delivering the proven performance of Vantablack.

Oddly, the company news release notes Vantablack S-VIS could be used in consumer products while including the recommendation that it not be used in products where physical contact or abrasion is possible,

… Its ability to deceive the eye also opens up a range of design possibilities to enhance styling and appearance in luxury goods and jewellery [emphasis mine].

… “We are continuing to develop the technology, and the new sprayable version really does open up the possibility of applying super-black coatings in many more types of airborne or terrestrial applications. Possibilities include commercial products such as cameras, [emphasis mine] equipment requiring improved performance in a smaller form factor, as well as differentiating the look of products by means of the coating’s unique aesthetic appearance. It’s a major step forward compared with today’s commercial absorber coatings.”

The structured surface of Vantablack S-VIS means that it is not recommended for applications where it is subject to physical contact or abrasion. [emphasis mine] Ideally, it should be applied to surfaces that are protected, either within a packaged product, or behind a glass or other protective layer.

Presumably Surrey NanoSystems is looking at ways to make its Vantablack S-VIS capable of being used in products such as jewellery, cameras, and other consumers products where physical contact and abrasions are a strong possibility.

Andrew has pointed questions about using Vantablack S-VIS in new applications (from his March 29, 2016 article; Note: Links have been removed),

The original Vantablack was a specialty carbon nanotube coating designed for use in space, to reduce the amount of stray light entering space-based optical instruments. It was this far remove from any people that made Vantablack seem pretty safe. Whatever its toxicity, the chances of it getting into someone’s body were vanishingly small. It wasn’t nontoxic, but the risk of exposure was minuscule.

In contrast, Vantablack S-VIS is designed to be used where people might touch it, inhale it, or even (unintentionally) ingest it.

To be clear, Vantablack S-VIS is not comparable to asbestos – the carbon nanotubes it relies on are too short, and too tightly bound together to behave like needle-like asbestos fibers. Yet its combination of novelty, low density and high surface area, together with the possibility of human exposure, still raise serious risk questions.

For instance, as an expert in nanomaterial safety, I would want to know how readily the spray – or bits of material dislodged from surfaces – can be inhaled or otherwise get into the body; what these particles look like; what is known about how their size, shape, surface area, porosity and chemistry affect their ability to damage cells; whether they can act as “Trojan horses” and carry more toxic materials into the body; and what is known about what happens when they get out into the environment.

Risk and the roles that scientists play

Andrew makes his point and holds various groups to account (from his March 29, 2016 article; Note: Links have been removed),

… in the case of Vantablack S-VIS, there’s been a conspicuous absence of such nanotechnology safety experts in media coverage.

This lack of engagement isn’t too surprising – publicly commenting on emerging topics is something we rarely train, or even encourage, our scientists to do.

And yet, where technologies are being commercialized at the same time their safety is being researched, there’s a need for clear lines of communication between scientists, users, journalists and other influencers. Otherwise, how else are people to know what questions they should be asking, and where the answers might lie?

In 2008, initiatives existed such as those at the Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology (CBEN) at Rice University and the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN) at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (where I served as science advisor) that took this role seriously. These and similar programs worked closely with journalists and others to ensure an informed public dialogue around the safe, responsible and beneficial uses of nanotechnology.

In 2016, there are no comparable programs, to my knowledge – both CBEN and PEN came to the end of their funding some years ago.

Some of the onus here lies with scientists themselves to make appropriate connections with developers, consumers and others. But to do this, they need the support of the institutions they work in, as well as the organizations who fund them. This is not a new idea – there is of course a long and ongoing debate about how to ensure academic research can benefit ordinary people.

Media and risk

As mainstream media such as newspapers and broadcast news continue to suffer losses in audience numbers, the situation vis à vis science journalism has changed considerably since 2008. Finding information is more of a challenge even for the interested.

As for those who might be interested, the chances of catching their attention are considerably more challenging. For example, some years ago scientists claimed to have achieved ‘cold fusion’ and there were television interviews (on the 60 minutes tv programme, amongst others) and cover stories in Time magazine and Newsweek magazine, which you could find in the grocery checkout line. You didn’t have to look for it. In fact, it was difficult to avoid the story. Sadly, the scientists had oversold and misrepresented their findings and that too was extensively covered in mainstream media. The news cycle went on for months. Something similar happened in 2010 with ‘arsenic life’. There was much excitement and then it became clear that scientists had overstated and misrepresented their findings. That news cycle was completed within three or fewer weeks and most members of the public were unaware. Media saturation is no longer what it used to be.

Innovative outreach needs to be part of the discussion and perhaps the Vantablack S-VIS controversy amongst artists can be viewed through that lens.

Anish Kapoor and his exclusive rights to Vantablack

According to a Feb. 29, 2016 article by Henri Neuendorf for artnet news, there is some consternation regarding internationally known artist, Anish Kapoor and a deal he has made with Surrey Nanosystems, the makers of Vantablack in all its iterations (Note: Links have been removed),

Anish Kapoor provoked the fury of fellow artists by acquiring the exclusive rights to the blackest black in the world.

The Indian-born British artist has been working and experimenting with the “super black” paint since 2014 and has recently acquired exclusive rights to the pigment according to reports by the Daily Mail.

The artist clearly knows the value of this innovation for his work. “I’ve been working in this area for the last 30 years or so with all kinds of materials but conventional materials, and here’s one that does something completely different,” he said, adding “I’ve always been drawn to rather exotic materials.”

This description from his Wikipedia entry gives some idea of Kapoor’s stature (Note: Links have been removed),

Sir Anish Kapoor, CBE RA (Hindi: अनीश कपूर, Punjabi: ਅਨੀਸ਼ ਕਪੂਰ), (born 12 March 1954) is a British-Indian sculptor. Born in Bombay,[1][2] Kapoor has lived and worked in London since the early 1970s when he moved to study art, first at the Hornsey College of Art and later at the Chelsea School of Art and Design.

He represented Britain in the XLIV Venice Biennale in 1990, when he was awarded the Premio Duemila Prize. In 1991 he received the Turner Prize and in 2002 received the Unilever Commission for the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern. Notable public sculptures include Cloud Gate (colloquially known as “the Bean”) in Chicago’s Millennium Park; Sky Mirror, exhibited at the Rockefeller Center in New York City in 2006 and Kensington Gardens in London in 2010;[3] Temenos, at Middlehaven, Middlesbrough; Leviathan,[4] at the Grand Palais in Paris in 2011; and ArcelorMittal Orbit, commissioned as a permanent artwork for London’s Olympic Park and completed in 2012.[5]

Kapoor received a Knighthood in the 2013 Birthday Honours for services to visual arts. He was awarded an honorary doctorate degree from the University of Oxford in 2014.[6] [7] In 2012 he was awarded Padma Bhushan by Congress led Indian government which is India’s 3rd highest civilian award.[8]

Artists can be cutthroat but they can also be prankish. Take a look at this image of Kapoor and note the blue background,

Artist Anish Kapoor is known for the rich pigments he uses in his work. (Image: Andrew Winning/Reuters)

Artist Anish Kapoor is known for the rich pigments he uses in his work. (Image: Andrew Winning/Reuters)

I don’t know why or when this image (used to illustrate Andrew’s essay) was taken so it may be coincidental but the background for the image brings to mind, Yves Klein and his International Klein Blue (IKB) pigment. From the IKB Wikipedia entry,

L'accord bleu (RE 10), 1960, mixed media piece by Yves Klein featuring IKB pigment on canvas and sponges Jaredzimmerman (WMF) - Foundation Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam Collection

L’accord bleu (RE 10), 1960, mixed media piece by Yves Klein featuring IKB pigment on canvas and sponges Jaredzimmerman (WMF) – Foundation Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam Collection

Here’s more from the IKB Wikipedia entry (Note: Links have been removed),

International Klein Blue (IKB) was developed by Yves Klein in collaboration with Edouard Adam, a Parisian art paint supplier whose shop is still in business on the Boulevard Edgar-Quinet in Montparnasse.[1] The uniqueness of IKB does not derive from the ultramarine pigment, but rather from the matte, synthetic resin binder in which the color is suspended, and which allows the pigment to maintain as much of its original qualities and intensity of color as possible.[citation needed] The synthetic resin used in the binder is a polyvinyl acetate developed and marketed at the time under the name Rhodopas M or M60A by the French pharmaceutical company Rhône-Poulenc.[2] Adam still sells the binder under the name “Médium Adam 25.”[1]

In May 1960, Klein deposited a Soleau envelope, registering the paint formula under the name International Klein Blue (IKB) at the Institut national de la propriété industrielle (INPI),[3] but he never patented IKB. Only valid under French law, a soleau enveloppe registers the date of invention, according to the depositor, prior to any legal patent application. The copy held by the INPI was destroyed in 1965. Klein’s own copy, which the INPI returned to him duly stamped is still extant.[4]

In short, it’s not the first time an artist has ‘owned’ a colour. Kapoor is not a performance artist as was Klein but his sculptural work lends itself to spectacle and to stimulating public discourse. As to whether or not, this is a prank, I cannot say but it has stimulated a discourse which ranges from intellectual property and artists to the risks of carbon nanotubes and the role scientists could play in the discourse about the risks associated with emerging technologies.

Regardless of how is was intended, bravo to Kapoor.

More reading

Andrew’s March 29, 2016 article has also been reproduced on Nanowerk and Slate.

Johathan Jones has written about Kapoor and the Vantablack  controversy in a Feb. 29, 2016 article for The Guardian titled: Can an artist ever really own a colour?

Watching paint dry at the nanoscale

When paint dries it separates itself into two layers and according to scientists this may have implications for improving performance in products ranging from paints to beauty and cosmetics. From a March 18, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily,

New research published today in the journal Physical Review Letters has described a new physical mechanism that separates particles according to their size during the drying of wet coatings. The discovery could help improve the performance of a wide variety of everyday goods, from paint to sunscreen.

A March 18, 2016 University of Surrey (England) press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more details,

Researchers from the University of Surrey [England, UK] in collaboration with the Université Claude Bernard, Lyon [France] used computer simulation and materials experiments to show how when coatings with different sized particles, such as paints dry, the coating spontaneously forms two layers.

This mechanism can be used to control the properties at the top and bottom of coatings independently, which could help increase performance of coatings across industries as diverse as beauty and pharmaceuticals.

Dr Andrea Fortini, of the University of Surrey and lead author explained:

“When coatings such as paint, ink or even outer layers on tablets are made, they work by spreading a liquid containing solid particles onto a surface, and allowing the liquid to evaporate. This is nothing new, but what is exciting is that we’ve shown that during evaporation, the small particles push away the larger ones, remaining at the top surface whilst the larger are pushed to bottom. This happens naturally.”

Dr Fortini continued, “This type of ‘self-layering’ in a coating could be very useful. For example, in a sun screen, most of the sunlight-blocking particles could be designed to push their way to the top, leaving particles that can adhere to the skin near the bottom of the coating. Typically the particles used in coatings have sizes that are 1000 times smaller than the width of a human hair so engineering these coatings takes place at a microscopic level. ”

The team is continuing to work on such research to understand how to control the width of the layer by changing the type and amount of small particles in the coating and explore their use in industrial products such as paints, inks, and adhesives

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

Dynamic Stratification in Drying Films of Colloidal Mixtures by Andrea Fortini, Ignacio Martín-Fabiani, Jennifer Lesage De La Haye, Pierre-Yves Dugas, Muriel Lansalot, Franck D’Agosto, Elodie Bourgeat-Lami, Joseph L. Keddie, and Richard P. Sear. Phys. Rev. Lett. 116, 118301 – Published 18 March 2016 DOI:http://dx.doi.org/10.1103/PhysRevLett.116.118301

© 2016 American Physical Society

This article is behind a paywall.

Tempest in a teapot or a sign of things to come? UK’s National Graphene Institute kerfuffle

A scandal-in-the-offing, intellectual property, miffed academics, a chortling businessman, graphene, and much more make this a fascinating story.

Before launching into the main attractions, those unfamiliar with the UK graphene effort might find this background informal useful. Graphene, was first isolated at the University of Manchester in 2004 by scientists Andre Geim* and Konstantin Novoselov, Russian immigrants, both of whom have since become Nobel laureates and knights of the realm. The excitement in the UK and elsewhere is due to graphene’s extraordinary properties which could lead to transparent electronics, foldable/bendable electronics, better implants, efficient and inexpensive (they hope) water filters, and more. The UK government has invested a lot of money in graphene as has the European Union (1B Euros in the Graphene Flagship) in the hope that huge economic benefits will be reaped.

Dexter Johnson’s March 15, 2016 posting on his Nanoclast blog (on the IEEE [Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers] website) provides details about the situation (Note: Links have been removed),

A technology that, a year ago, was being lauded as the “first commercially viable consumer product” using graphene now appears to be caught up in an imbroglio over who owns its intellectual property rights. The resulting controversy has left the research institute behind the technology in a bit of a public relations quagmire.

The venerable UK publication The Sunday Times reported this week on what appeared to be a mutiny occurring at the National Graphene Institute (NGI) located at the University of Manchester. Researchers at the NGI had reportedly stayed away from working at the institute’s gleaming new $71 million research facility over fears that their research was going to end up in the hands of foreign companies, in particular a Taiwan-based company called BGT Materials.

The “first commercially viable consumer product” noted in Dexter’s posting was a graphene-based lightbulb which was announced by the NGI to much loud crowing in March 2015 (see my March 30, 2015 posting). The company producing the lightbulb was announced as “… Graphene Lighting PLC is a spin-out based on a strategic partnership with the National Graphene Institute (NGI) at The University of Manchester to create graphene applications.” There was no mention of BGT.

Dexter describes the situation from the BGT perspective (from his March 15, 2016 posting), Note: Links have been removed,

… BGT did not demur when asked by  the Times whether it owned the technology. In fact, Chung Ping Lai, BGT’s CEO, claimed it was his company that had invented the technology for the light bulb and not the NGI. The Times report further stated that Lai controls all the key patents and claims to be delighted with his joint venture with the university. “I believe in luck and I have had luck in Manchester,” Lai told the Times.

With companies outside the UK holding majority stakes in the companies spun out of the NGI—allowing them to claim ownership of the technologies developed at the institute—one is left to wonder what was the purpose of the £50 million (US $79 million) earmarked for graphene research in the UK more than four years ago? Was it to develop a local economy based around graphene—a “Graphene Valley”, if you will? Or was it to prop up the local construction industry through the building of shiny new buildings that reportedly few people occupy? That’s the charge leveled by Andre Geim, Nobel laureate for his discovery of graphene, and NGI’s shining star. Geim reportedly described the new NGI building as: “Money put in the British building industry rather than science.”

Dexter ends his March 15, 2016 posting with an observation  that will seem familiar to Canadians,

Now, it seems the government’s eagerness to invest in graphene research—or at least, the facilities for conducting that research—might have ended up bringing it to the same place as its previous lack of investment: the science is done in the UK and the exploitation of the technology is done elsewhere.

The March 13, 2016 Sunday Times article [ETA on April 3, 2016: This article is now behind a paywall] by Tom Harper, Jon Ungoed-Thomas and Michael Sheridan, which seems to be the source of Dexter’s posting, takes a more partisan approach,

ACADEMICS are boycotting a top research facility after a company linked to China was given access to lucrative confidential material from one of Britain’s greatest scientific breakthroughs.

Some scientists at Manchester University working on graphene, a wonder substance 200 times stronger than steel, refuse to work at the new £61m national institution, set up to find ways to exploit the material, amid concerns over a deal struck between senior university management and BGT Materials.

The academics are concerned that the National Graphene Institute (NGI), which was opened last year by George Osborne, the chancellor, and forms one of the key planks of his “northern powerhouse” industrial strategy, does not have the necessary safeguards to protect their confidential research, which could revolutionise the electronics, energy, health and building industries.

BGT, which is controlled by a Taiwanese businessman, subsequently agreed to work with a Chinese manufacturing company and university to develop similar graphene technology.

BGT says its work in Manchester has been successful and it is “offensive” and “untrue” to suggest that it would unfairly use intellectual property. The university say there is no evidence “whatsoever” of unfair use of confidential information. Manchester says it is understandable that some scientists are cautious about the collaborative environment of the new institute. But one senior academic said the arrangement with BGT had caused the university’s graphene research to descend into “complete anarchy”.

The academic said: “The NGI is a national facility, and why should we use it for a company, which is not even an English [owned] company? How much [intellectual property] is staying in England and how much is going to Taiwan?”

The row highlights concerns that the UK has dawdled in developing one of its greatest discoveries. Nearly 50% of ­graphene-related patents have been filed in China, and just 1% in Britain.

Manchester signed a £5m “research collaboration agreement” with BGT Materials in October 2013. Although the company is controlled by a Taiwanese businessman, Chung-ping Lai, the university does have a 17.5% shareholding.

Manchester claimed that the commercial deal would “attract a significant number of jobs to the city” and “benefit the UK economy”.

However, an investigation by The Sunday Times has established:

Only four jobs have been created as a result of the deal and BGT has not paid the full £5m due under the agreement after two projects were cancelled.

Pictures sent to The Sunday Times by a source at the university last month show that the offices at the NGI [National Graphene Institute], which can accommodate 120 staff, were deserted.

British-based businessmen working with graphene have also told The Sunday Times of their concerns about the institute’s information security. Tim Harper, a Manchester-based graphene entrepreneur, said: “We looked at locating there [at the NGI] but we take intellectual property extremely seriously and it is a problem locating in such a facility.

“If you don’t have control over your computer systems or the keys to your lab, then you’ve got a problem.”

I recommend reading Dexter’s post and the Sunday Times article as they provide some compelling insight into the UK situation vis à vis nanotechnology, science, and innovation.

*’Gheim’ corrected to ‘Geim’ on March 30, 2016.

Observing silica microspheres leads to theories about schools of fish and human crowds

Researchers developing theories about the crowd behaviour of tiny particles believe the theories may have some relevance to macro world phenomena.

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From a March 9, 2016 news item on Nanowerk,

Crowds formed from tiny particles disperse as their environment becomes more disordered, according to scientists from UCL [University College London, UK], Bilkent University [Turkey] and Université Pierre et Marie Curie [France].

The new mechanism is counterintuitive and might help describe crowd behaviour in natural, real-world systems where many factors impact on individuals’ responses to either gather or disperse.

“Bacterial colonies, schools of fish, flocking birds, swarming insects and pedestrian flow all show collective and dynamic behaviours which are sensitive to changes in the surrounding environment and their dispersal or gathering can be sometimes the difference between life and death,” said lead researcher, Dr Giorgio Volpe, UCL Chemistry.

A March 9, 2016 UCL press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

“The crowd often has different behaviours to the individuals within it and we don’t know what the simple rules of motion are for this. If we understood these and how they are adapted in complex environments, we could externally regulate active systems. Examples include controlling the delivery of biotherapeutics in nanoparticle carriers to the target in the body, or improving crowd security in a panic situation.”

The study, published today in Nature Communications, investigated the behaviour of active colloidal particles in a controllable system to find out the rules of motion for individuals gathering or dispersing in response to external factors.

Colloidal particles are free to diffuse through a solution and for this study suspended silica microspheres were used. The colloidal particles became active with the addition of E. coli bacteria to the solution. Active colloidal particles were chosen as a model system because they move of their own accord using the energy from their environment, which is similar to how animals move to get food.

Initially, the active colloidal particles gathered at the centre of the area illuminated by a smooth beam which provided an active potential. Disorder was introduced using a speckle beam pattern which disordered the attractive potential and caused the colloids to disperse from the area at a rate of 0.6 particles per minute over 30 minutes. The particles switched between gathering and dispersing proportional to the level of external disorder imposed.

Erçağ Pinçe, who is first author of the study with Dr Sabareesh K. P. Velu, both Bilkent University, said: “We didn’t expect to see this mechanism as it’s counterintuitive but it might already be at play in natural systems. Our finding suggests there may be a way to control active matter through external factors. We could use it to control an existing system, or to design active agents that exploit the features of the environment to perform a given task, for example designing distinct depolluting agents for different types of polluted terrains and soils.”

Co-author, Dr Giovanni Volpe, Bilkent University, added: “Classical statistical physics allows us to understand what happens when a system is at equilibrium but unfortunately for researchers, life happens far from equilibrium. Behaviours are often unpredictable as they strongly depend on the characteristic of the environment. We hope that understanding these behaviours will help reveal the physics behind living organisms, but also help deliver innovative technologies in personalised healthcare, environmental sustainability and security.”

The team now plan on applying their findings to real-life situations to improve society. In particular, they want to exploit the main conclusions from their work to develop intelligent nanorobots for applications in drug-delivery and environmental sustainability that are capable of efficiently navigate through complex natural environments.

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

Disorder-mediated crowd control in an active matter system by Erçağ Pinçe, Sabareesh K. P. Velu, Agnese Callegari, Parviz Elahi, Sylvain Gigan, Giovanni Volpe, & Giorgio Volpe. Nature Communications 7, Article number: 10907 doi:10.1038/ncomms10907 Published 09 March 2016

This is an open access paper.