Tag Archives: UK National Physical Laboratory

Nanoscopy and a 2014 Nobel Prize for Chemistry

An Oct. 8, 2014 news item on Nanowerk features the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry honourees,

 For a long time optical microscopy was held back by a presumed limitation: that it would never obtain a better resolution than half the wavelength of light. Helped by fluorescent molecules the Nobel Laureates in Chemistry 2014 ingeniously circumvented this limitation.

Their ground-breaking work has brought optical microscopy into the nanodimension.
In what has become known as nanoscopy, scientists visualize the pathways of individual molecules inside living cells. They can see how molecules create synapses between nerve cells in the brain; they can track proteins involved in Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s diseases as they aggregate; they follow individual proteins in fertilized eggs as these divide into embryos.

An Oct, 8, 2014 Royal Swedish Academy of Science press release, which originated the news item, expands on the ‘groundbreaking’ theme,

It was all but obvious that scientists should ever be able to study living cells in the tiniest molecular detail. In 1873, the microscopist Ernst Abbe stipulated a physical limit for the maximum resolution of traditional optical microscopy: it could never become better than 0.2 micrometres. Eric Betzig, Stefan W. Hell and William E. Moerner are awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2014 for having bypassed this limit. Due to their achievements the optical microscope can now peer into the nanoworld.

Two separate principles are rewarded. One enables the method stimulated emission depletion (STED) microscopy, developed by Stefan Hell in 2000. Two laser beams are utilized; one stimulates fluorescent molecules to glow, another cancels out all fluorescence except for that in a nanometre-sized volume. Scanning over the sample, nanometre for nanometre, yields an image with a resolution better than Abbe’s stipulated limit.

Eric Betzig and William Moerner, working separately, laid the foundation for the second method, single-molecule microscopy. The method relies upon the possibility to turn the fluorescence of individual molecules on and off. Scientists image the same area multiple times, letting just a few interspersed molecules glow each time. Superimposing these images yields a dense super-image resolved at the nanolevel. In 2006 Eric Betzig utilized this method for the first time.

Today, nanoscopy is used world-wide and new knowledge of greatest benefit to mankind is produced on a daily basis.

Here’s an image illustrating different microscopy resolutions including one featuring single-molecule microscopy,

The centre image shows lysosome membranes and is one of the first ones taken by Betzig using single-molecule microscopy. To the left, the same image taken using conventional microscopy. To the right, the image of the membranes has been enlarged. Note the scale division of 0.2 micrometres, equivalent to Abbe’s diffraction limit. Image: Science 313:1642–1645. [downloaded from http://www.kva.se/en/pressroom/Press-releases-2014/nobelpriset-i-kemi-2014/]

The centre image shows lysosome membranes and is one of the first ones taken by Betzig using single-molecule microscopy. To the left, the same image taken using conventional microscopy. To the right, the image of the membranes has been enlarged. Note the scale division of 0.2 micrometres, equivalent to Abbe’s diffraction limit. Image: Science 313:1642–1645. [downloaded from http://www.kva.se/en/pressroom/Press-releases-2014/nobelpriset-i-kemi-2014/]

The press release goes on to provide some biographical details about the three honourees and information about the financial size of the award,

Eric Betzig, U.S. citizen. Born 1960 in Ann Arbor, MI, USA. Ph.D. 1988 from Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, USA. Group Leader at Janelia Farm Research Campus, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Ashburn, VA, USA.

Stefan W. Hell, German citizen. Born 1962 in Arad, Romania. Ph.D. 1990 from the University of Heidelberg, Germany. Director at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry, Göttingen, and Division head at the German Cancer Research Center, Heidelberg, Germany.

William E. Moerner, U.S. citizen. Born 1953 in Pleasanton, CA, USA. Ph.D. 1982 from Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, USA. Harry S. Mosher Professor in Chemistry and Professor, by courtesy, of Applied Physics at Stanford University, Stanford, CA, USA.

Prize amount: SEK 8 million, to be shared equally between the Laureates.

The amount is in Swedish Krona. In USD, it is approximately $1.1M; in CAD, it is approximately $1.2M; and, in pounds sterling (British pounds), it is approximately £689,780.

Congratulations to all three gentlemen!

ETA Oct. 14, 2014: Azonano features an Oct. 14, 2014 news item from the UK’s National Physical Laboratory (NPL)  congratulating the three recipients of the 2014 Nobel Prize for Chemistry. The item also features a description of the recipients’ groundbreaking work along with an update on how this pioneering work has influenced and inspired further research in the field of nanoscopy at the NPL.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Graphene bits from the UK’s National Physical Laboratory and Cientifica

In the first bit of this week’s graphene news, the UK”s National Physical Laboratory (NPL) has joined the Graphene Stakeholders Association according to an Aug. 5, 2013 NPL news release,

The National Physical Laboratory (NPL) has joined the Graphene Stakeholders Association (GSA) as a lifetime member. NPL will work closely with the GSA to promote the responsible development of graphene and graphene-enabled technologies and applications.

“We foresee a significant role for NPL in the GSA in helping to develop common and accepted nomenclature, definitions, standard metrology and testing methods that will help foster and facilitate the development of graphene and graphene-enabled applications globally,” stated GSA co-founder, Stephen Waite. “We are delighted with NPL’s decision to join the GSA and look forward to working closely with Andrew Pollard and his colleagues in the months and years ahead,” says Waite.

NPL’s Andrew Pollard, who joins the GSA’s Advisory Board, said: “NPL has a leading role in the development of measurement techniques and international standards for graphene and 2-D materials, and the formation of the GSA is extremely well-timed as graphene progresses from the research laboratory to commercialisation. This partnership between two organisations with such well-aligned aims should enable the widely-predicted growth of a global graphene industry.”

I mentioned the founding of the Graphene Stakeholders Association in an April 23, 2013 posting. At the time I noted the group’s very interesting Graphene Industry Information page, which features these tidbits,

China has published more graphene patents than any other country, at 2,204, ahead of 1,754 for the U.S., 1,160 for South Korea, and 54 for the U.K.

South Korea’s Samsung has more graphene patents than any single company.

Nokia is part of the 74-company Graphene Flagship Consortium that is receiving a €1 billion ($1.35 billion) grant that the E.U. announced in January 2013.

Nokia, Philips, U.K. invention stalwart Dyson, weapons and aerospace company BAE Systems, and others have committed £13 million ($20.5 million) to a graphene development center [Cambridge Graphene Centre as per my Jan. 24, 2013 posting] at Cambridge University, to go along with £12 million ($18.9 million) from the British government. [Also, there's a new National Graphene Institute being built in Manchester, UK {my Jan. 14, 2013 posting}.]


Graphene is prohibitively expensive to make today. As recently as 2008, it cost $100 million to produce a single cubic centimeter of graphene.

Researchers are working on methods to reduce the cost of manufacturing and help make graphene a ubiquitous fabrication material.

Graphene film companies face major commercialization hurdles, including reducing costs, scaling-up the substrate transfer process, overcoming current deposition area limitations, and besting other emerging material solutions.

This leads to the 2nd bit of graphene news, Cientifica (a business consultancy focusing on emerging technologies) has released its Graphene Opportunity Report, from the report’s webpage (Note: Links have been removed),

A decade ago when we published the first edition of the Nanotechnology Opportunity Report, there were predictions of untold riches for early investors, the replacement of all manufacturing as we know it, and the mythical trillion-dollar market.

Cientifica went against the grain by predicting that it would be hard for anyone to make money from nanomaterials, and that the real value would be in the applications. This has been borne out by the failure of even large global companies such as Mitsubishi Chemical and Bayer to make much headway with fullerenes and carbon nanotubes, and the failure of countless smaller nanomaterials producers.

On the other hand companies making use of nanomaterials, Germany’s Magforce Technologies and the US based BIND Therapeutics have shown what can be achieved when nanomaterials are applied to large addressable markets, in this case drug delivery.

Is Graphene The New Nanotech?

A similar amount of hype currently surrounds graphene, with wild predictions of applications ranging from microelectronics to water
treatment. This report examines these claims and taking the rational approach for which Cientifica is known, considers how valid these are and evaluates the chances of success.

We also look in detail at the graphene producers. Graphene comes in a wide range of forms, each with its own particular set of addressable applications. No one producer covers all applications and many are destined to be niche players. As with nanomaterials, many companies currently producing graphene are destined to burn brightly and then be unceremoniously snuffed out when scale up or access to applications fails to materialise.


As with all Cientifica reports, we look beyond the hype and take a rational and dispassionate look at the entire graphene value chain, from graphite to THz electronics. There will be long-term winners, and we indicate what strategies are required to join this small elite band, and we provide a wealth of lessons from our previous experience in nanotechnologies and life sciences.

Most importantly, we look beyond the narrow graphene or nanotechnology worlds and assess graphene’s chances of success in competing with a wide range of other technologies, many of which have not been considered by those concentrating solely on graphene.

The Graphene Opportunity Report is available at GBP 2000/EUR 2300/USD 3000.

You can access the report’s Table of Contents here.

Honey, could you please unzip my electronics?

The UK’s National Physical Laboratory has been proceeding with an interesting project on reusable electronics, ReUSE (Reuseable, Unzippable, Sustainable Electronics), according to the Oct. 30, 2012 news item on Nanowerk,

The National Physical Laboratory (NPL), along with partners In2Tec Ltd (UK) and Gwent Electronic Materials Ltd, have developed a printed circuit board (PCB) whose components can be easily separated by immersion in hot water. …

The electronics industry has a waste problem – currently over 100 million electronic units are discarded annually in the UK alone, making it one of the fastest growing waste streams.


It was estimated in a DTI [Dept. of Trade and Industry]-funded report, that around 85% of all PCB scrap board waste goes to landfill. Around 70% of this being of non-metallic content with little opportunity for recycling. This amounts to around 1 million tonnes in the UK annually equivalent to 81 x HMS Belfasts [ships]

This revolutionary materials technology allows a staggering 90% of the original structure to be re-used. For comparison, less than 2% of traditional PCB material can be re-used. The developed technology lends itself readily to rigid, flexible and 3D structures, which will enable the electronics industry to pursue new design philosophies – with the emphasis on using less materials and improving sustainability.

Here’s a video demonstrating the technology, from the ReUSE project news page,

I had to look at this twice to confirm what I was seeing. (I worked for a company that manufactured circuit boards for its products and the idea of immersing one of those in hot water is pretty shocking to me [pun intended].)

Graphene, replacing silicon, and epitaxial growth

Researchers in Norway have created a semiconductor on a graphene substrate—absolutely no silicon in the substrate. From the Sept. 28, 2012 news item on Nanowerk,

Norwegian researchers are the world’s first to develop a method for producing semiconductors from graphene. This finding may revolutionise the technology industry.
The method involves growing semiconductor-nanowires on graphene. To achieve this, researchers “bomb” the graphene surface with gallium atoms and arsenic molecules, thereby creating a network of minute nanowires.
The result is a one-micrometre thick hybrid material which acts as a semiconductor. By comparison, the silicon semiconductors in use today are several hundred times thicker. The semiconductors’ ability to conduct electricity may be affected by temperature, light or the addition of other atoms.

The Research Council of Norway’s Sept.28, 2012 news release, which originated the news item, offers this,

Graphene is the thinnest material known, and at the same time one of the strongest. It consists of a single layer of carbon atoms and is both pliable and transparent. The material conducts electricity and heat very effectively. And perhaps most importantly, it is very inexpensive to produce.

“Given that it’s possible to make semiconductors out of graphene instead of silicon, we can make semiconductor components that are both cheaper and more effective than the ones currently on the market,” explains Helge Weman of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU). Dr Weman is behind the breakthrough discovery along with Professor Bjørn-Ove Fimland.

“A material comprising a pliable base that is also transparent opens up a world of opportunities, one we have barely touched the surface of,” says Dr Weman. “This may bring about a revolution in the production of solar cells and LED components. Windows in traditional houses could double as solar panels or a TV screen. Mobile phone screens could be wrapped around the wrist like a watch. In short, the potential is tremendous.”

The researchers have patented this work and founded a startup company, CrayoNano. They provide a video animation of the process,

The narrator mentions epataxial growth and the gallium arsenide nanowires being grown on the graphene substrate. For anyone not familiar with ‘epataxial growth’, I found a definition in another Sept. 28, 2012 news item about graphene research on Nanowerk,

One of the best ways of producing high quality graphene is to grow it epitaxially (in layers) from crystals of silicon carbide. For use in electronic devices, it is important to be able to count the number of graphene layers that are grown, as single and double layers of graphene have different electrical properties.

This research out of the UK is based on using silicon as a substrate and you can find out more (excerpted from the  news item about the National Physical Laboratory’s graphene research on Nanowerk),

Recent National Physical Laboratory research, published in the Journal of Applied Physics (“Identification of epitaxial graphene domains and adsorbed species in ambient conditions using quantified topography measurements” [open access]), looked at different topography approaches of determining graphene thickness and investigated the factors that can influence the accuracy of the results, such as atmospheric water and other adsorbates on the graphene surface.

Getting back to graphene substrates, the Research Council of Norway’s news release provides the reminder that this research is about business,

The researchers will now begin to create prototypes directed towards specific areas of application. They have been in contact with giants in the electronics industry such as Samsung and IBM. “There is tremendous interest in producing semiconductors out of graphene, so it shouldn’t be difficult to find collaborative partners,” Dr Weman adds.

The researchers are hoping to have the new semiconductor hybrid materials on the commercial market in roughly five years.

Dexter Johnson in a Sept. 28, 2012 posting on his Nanoclast blog, which is hosted by the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers), provides some business perspective,

Weman notes: “Companies like IBM and Samsung are driving this development in the search for a replacement for silicon in electronics as well as for new applications, such as flexible touch screens for mobile phones. Well, they need not wait any more. Our invention fits perfectly with the production machinery they already have. We make it easy for them to upgrade consumer electronics to a level where design has no limits.”

As magnanimous as Weman’s invitation sounds, one can’t help but think it comes from concern. The prospect of a five-year-development period before a product gets to market might be somewhat worrying for a group of scientists who just launched a new startup. A nice licensing agreement from one of the big electronics companies must look appealing right about now.

Argento, nano, and PROOF

When the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) held its 2004 annual meeting in Seattle, I read the abstract for a presentation about making diagnoses from saliva. Although I never did make it to the presentation, I remained fascinated by the idea especially as it seemed to promise the end of blood tests and urine samples.  Well, the end is not quite in sight yet but a handheld diagnostic device that can make a diagnosis from a single sample of blood, urine, or saliva (!) is being made available to elite UK athletes. From the Dec. 9, 2010 news release,

A new hand-held medical device will help UK athletes reach the top of their game when preparing for upcoming sporting competitions. UK Sport, the UK’s high performance sports agency, has reached an agreement to become the first organisation to use cutting edge technology developed by Argento Diagnostics to improve training programmes for athletes.

Elite athletes will be able to monitor various proteins which reveal details about the condition of the body – known as biomarkers – before, during and after training sessions. These biomarkers can give a clear indication of their physical health and the effectiveness of a particular training programme. Everyone reacts differently to training, so understanding how activities affect the body helps ensure that athletes follow the best programmes for them and avoid injury. This is particularly important for elite level athletes, where small changes in fitness can mean the difference between success and failure.

I’m willing to bet that this initiative has something to do with the 2012 Olympic Summer Games being held in London. Still, I’m more interested in the device itself and how nanotechnology enables it (from the news release),

Argento’s portable device uses nanotechnology to analyse the sample. The sample is mixed with silver nanoparticles coated with a binding unit, an antibody, against a specific biological compound, the biomarker, which is indicative of the condition being tested for. If the biomarker is present the silver nanoparticles will stick to magnetic beads with the biomarkers sandwiched in-between.

Magnets pull these compounds into the measurement zone, where the silver nanoparticles are dislodged off, drawn down to the sensor and measured. The number of nanoparticles measured by the sensor will be directly proportional to the expressed amount of biomarker. The device can therefore quickly analyse the biomarker level and, using a computer programme, summarise it in a meaningful way on an on-screen readout.

I did manage to get some more information about the device from Argento’s company website,

For the first time ever, utilising the Argento technology we will be able to offer fully quantitative analysis of multiple analytes from a single sample in a truly portable handheld device which adds the benefits of modern mobile phone, WiFi and Bluetooth technology to store and communicate the results of the tests to maximise the impact and efficiency of testing.

Unfortunately, I can’t find any information about precisely how the samples are conveyed to the device for diagnostic purposes, i.e., do you spit on it, do you sprinkle it with urine, or do you stab yourself and dip the device into your blood? Yes, I suspect that medical professionals will be drawing blood or scraping your mouth with a Q-tip or getting you to donate a urine sample in the usual way and that somehow this sample  is conveyed to the device which will, an unspecified amount of time later, provide a readout. I just wish the people who put together the news release and information materials on the company’s website (BTW, the company is a spin-off from the UK’s National Physical Laboratory) had thought to add these details.

Closer to home, the PROOF (Prevention of Organ Failure) Centre of Excellence, located in Vancouver, Canada, is working on a type of test that could conceivably extend the use of devices such as Argento beyond elite athletes. The PROOF team is working on a test for individuals who have received a transplant.  If you get a new organ such as a kidney, a biopsy is required on a monthly basis for diagnostic purposes. The new PROOF test would be much less invasive, much faster and based on biomarkers, just like the tests that can be run on the Argento device. As far as I understand, the team is currently searching for capital to further develop their biomarker tests.

Teaching nanotechnology in 2nd Life

I’m not sure if this is “applying nanotechnology to health problems” or if it’s nanomedicine but that’s what Ananth Annapragada, Ph.D., holder of the Robert H. Graham Professorship of Entrepreneurial Biomedical Informatics and Bioengineering at the University of Texas (UT) Health School of Biomedical Informatics and fellow at the IC² Institute, an interdisciplinary research unit of The University of Texas at Austi (also on the faculty of the UTHealth Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences and UT Austin Department of Biomedical Engineering [that's a lot of job titles]), is teaching distance education students via 2nd Life.

From the news item on Nanowerk,

When he is not teaching students how to apply nanotechnology to health problems, Annapragada is building miniaturized drug delivery systems engineered to ferry agents through the bloodstream to specific targets. His nanocarriers are so small they are measured in billionths of a meter.

“It was a leap of faith to see if this would work,” said Annapragada, who is making his teaching debut in Second Life. “I’m getting the equivalent if not better class participation.”

Annapragada likes the fact that he can gather students from different locations in the same virtual classroom at the same time. “Everyone gets the same learning experience,” he said. “It reduces a geographically-distributed student group to the same interactive common denominator.”

Beginning the three-hour class with a short lecture, he then divides students into work groups. During the next hour or so, he “turns the students loose” to work on a nano problem. He normally concludes with a lecture.

Targeted drug delivery is a hot topic in nanomedicine and was the subject of a recent class. When medicine is injected into the bloodstream, often relatively little reaches its intended target.

One nano solution being researched by Annapragada and others in the field involves packaging drugs in tiny carriers designed to bind to diseased cells. It requires extensive knowledge of the interaction between the substances on the surfaces of both the drug carrier and the diseased cell.

The students’ nano problem that day was to develop a nanocarrier for targeting brain tumors. Their homework was to come up with the specifics.

There are students from UTHealth, UT Austin, Rice University and Baylor College of Medicine. Their degree programs include biology, biomedical engineering and physics. Some are enrolled in the Nanobiology Interdisciplinary Graduate Training Program operated by the Gulf Coast Consortia. There are 25 in the class.

“This is the only nanomedicine course in the UT System that I’m aware of,” Annapragada said. “It’s appropriate that I’m using the novel methodology of Second Life. Nanomedicine is an evolving field. There is no textbook. We are writing the textbook as we go.”

I heard a presentation by Dr. DeNel Rehberg Sedo about teaching in a 2nd Life classroom at a 2007 conference for the Association of Internet Researchers. Contrary to expectations, for the most part her students in Nova Scotia (Canada) at Mount St. Vincent University did not take to 2nd Life easily nor were they were particularly enthused about the experience.

There are a number of possibilities as to why that may have been the case. (1) The students were studying communication and/or public relations programmes; subjects which may not lend themselves easily to a virtual classroom.  (2) The year 2007 would represent fairly early adoption of a new technology for the classroom  (Brava DeNel! and students!) and early adoption is always littered with setbacks and problems as students and instructors “write the textbook as they go.” (3) Students in 2007 may not have had sufficiently powerful systems for the 2nd Life environment. (I was in a student programme and found that while I had a system that was the minimum required for 2nd Life participation, the minimum just wasn’t good enough.)

Another early adopter of 2nd Life was the UK’s National Physical Laboratory. They featured a nanotechnology outreach project, Nanolands which was in part designed by Troy McConaghy, a Canadian who amongst other activities produces science exhibits in 2nd Life. (my Sept. 3 2008 interview with Troy)

I find these bits of news and information intriguing as I am fascinated by the increasing inroads that new media and social media are making into how science and technology are communicated and discussed.

Flies carry nanoparticles; EPA invites comments; scientific collaboration in virtual worlds

A new study is suggesting that flies exposed to nanoparticles in manufacturing areas or other places with heavy concentrations could accumulate the particles on their bodies and transport them elsewhere. From the media release on Nanowerk News,

During the experiments, the researchers noted that contaminated flies transferred nanoparticles to other flies, and realized that such transfer could also occur between flies and humans in the future. The transfer involved very low levels of nanoparticles, which did not have adverse effects on the fruit flies.

It makes perfect sense when you think about it. Flies pick up and transport all manner of entities so why wouldn’t they pick up nanoparticles in their vicinity?

In other news, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has asked for comments on case studies of nanoscale titanium dioxide in water treatment and sunscreens. Presumably you have to be a US citizen to participate. For more information on the call for comments, check out this item on Nanowerk News. From the item,

EPA is announcing a 45-day public comment period for the draft document, Nanomaterial Case Studies: Nanoscale Titanium Dioxide in Water Treatment and Topical Sunscreen (External Review Draft), as announced in the July 31, 2009 Federal Register Notice. The deadline for comments is September 14, 2009.

Yesterday, I came across an announcement about scientific collaboration in a virtual world (specifically Second Life). It’s the first professional scientific organization, Meta Institute for Computational Astrophysics (MICA), based entirely in a virtual world.

This idea contrasts somewhat with the NanoLands concept from the National Physical Laboratory in the UK where an organization with a physical location creates a virtual location. (You can see my interview with Troy McConaghy, part of the original NanoLands design team, here.)  The project blog seems to have been newly revived and you can find out more about NanoLands and their latest machinima movies. (If you want to see the machinima, you need a Second Life account.)

What I found particularly interesting about MICA is this bit from their media release on Physorg.com,

In addition to getting people together in a free and convenient way, virtual worlds can offer new possibilities for scientific visualization or “visual analytics.” As data sets become larger and more complex, visualization can help researchers better understand different phenomena. Virtual worlds not only offer visualization, but also enable researchers to become immersed in data and simulations, which may help scientists think differently about data and patterns. Multi-dimensional data visualization can provide further advantages for certain types of data. The researchers found that they can encode data in spaces with up to 12 dimensions, although they run into the challenge of getting the human mind to easily grasp the encoded content.

Shades of multimodal discourse! More tomorrow.

Interview with Troy McConaghy (part of the Nano Lands team)

The Nano Lands project is the UK’s National Plysical Laboratory’s (NPL) Second Life Nanotechnology project. It’s a virtual environment where they’ve developed a whole series of nano displays and experiences. Troy McConaghy who helped to construct Nano Lands very kindly answered some questions about himself and the project,

What you do: I do projects in the virtual world Second Life.

Where are you located: (Ontario?) Yes, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada

[How did you get the job?] I knew a guy working at NPL from our involvement with the International Spaceflight Museum, among other things.  He wanted to hire me to do this job and I accepted the offer.

Did you know much about nanotech before you started? A little bit.

What did you learn about nanotech from working on this project? I learned a lot about nanotech, from the exhibits and events that happened while I was on that project: how MOSFETs are built, how AFMs work, the history of nanotubes, how the University of Waterloo set up the first undergraduate program in nanotechnology and much more.

Do you have any advice for someone who wants to vast Nano Lands? Do you mean visit? You can visit them today – just open the “Map” in Second Life and look for “Nanotechnology” – it’s the name of the sim. Then teleport there.

What advantages does a virtual environment offer for someone wanting to find out about nanotech? You can see models and simulations that would either be impossible or very expensive in the physical world.

Is there anything you’d like to add? One should really be careful to distinguish nanoscience from nanotechnology. Science is not technology.

(Interview Edited [October 25, 2010] to change font size and increase readibility.) More about Troy McConaghy here.  For those not familiar with the abbreviation AFM, that’s an atomic force microscope, which is often used when working at the nanoscale. I had to look up MOSFET and according to Wikipedia, it’s a metal-oxide-semiconductor field-effect-transistor, which is used to amplify or switch electronic signals. My guess is that they use this device at the NPL and decided to reproduce it in Second Life.

That last comment of McConaghy’s about science and technology is interesting for a number of reasons. Nanotechnology in particular has a problem. While the idea was more or less defined by Richard Feynman, a physicist, in a talk he gave in 1959 (there’s some debate about where it really starts by literary theorists), The idea was named ‘nanotechnology’ by Norio Taniguchi, an engineer, in 1974. It then got popularized by another engineer, K. Erci Drexler in his 1986 book, ‘Engines of Creation’. I have more about the origins story on my wiki. (if you want to check it out, go to studentnanomysteries.pbwiki.com and either use the origins tag or View all pages and check out the ‘Storytellers create nano’ and the ‘Modern Times’ pages.

Back to science and technology, I think the genie is out of the bottle where nanotechnology is concerned. Personally, I don’t like the conflation and I don’t think the increasing pressure that scientists of all stripes are under to do only work that has commercial applications (the sooner, the better) is good for us as a society.  We need the dreams and we need the ideas not just because they might be useful some day in the future but because it enriches us all in some indefinable, unquantifiable fashion.