Tag Archives: Universite de Montreal

The Canadian science scene and the 2017 Canadian federal budget

There’s not much happening in the 2017-18 budget in terms of new spending according to Paul Wells’ March 22, 2017 article for TheStar.com,

This is the 22nd or 23rd federal budget I’ve covered. And I’ve never seen the like of the one Bill Morneau introduced on Wednesday [March 22, 2017].

Not even in the last days of the Harper Conservatives did a budget provide for so little new spending — $1.3 billion in the current budget year, total, in all fields of government. That’s a little less than half of one per cent of all federal program spending for this year.

But times are tight. The future is a place where we can dream. So the dollars flow more freely in later years. In 2021-22, the budget’s fifth planning year, new spending peaks at $8.2 billion. Which will be about 2.4 per cent of all program spending.

He’s not alone in this 2017 federal budget analysis; CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) pundits, Chantal Hébert, Andrew Coyne, and Jennifer Ditchburn said much the same during their ‘At Issue’ segment of the March 22, 2017 broadcast of The National (news).

Before I focus on the science and technology budget, here are some general highlights from the CBC’s March 22, 2017 article on the 2017-18 budget announcement (Note: Links have been removed,

Here are highlights from the 2017 federal budget:

  • Deficit: $28.5 billion, up from $25.4 billion projected in the fall.
  • Trend: Deficits gradually decline over next five years — but still at $18.8 billion in 2021-22.
  • Housing: $11.2 billion over 11 years, already budgeted, will go to a national housing strategy.
  • Child care: $7 billion over 10 years, already budgeted, for new spaces, starting 2018-19.
  • Indigenous: $3.4 billion in new money over five years for infrastructure, health and education.
  • Defence: $8.4 billion in capital spending for equipment pushed forward to 2035.
  • Care givers: New care-giving benefit up to 15 weeks, starting next year.
  • Skills: New agency to research and measure skills development, starting 2018-19.
  • Innovation: $950 million over five years to support business-led “superclusters.”
  • Startups: $400 million over three years for a new venture capital catalyst initiative.
  • AI: $125 million to launch a pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy.
  • Coding kids: $50 million over two years for initiatives to teach children to code.
  • Families: Option to extend parental leave up to 18 months.
  • Uber tax: GST to be collected on ride-sharing services.
  • Sin taxes: One cent more on a bottle of wine, five cents on 24 case of beer.
  • Bye-bye: No more Canada Savings Bonds.
  • Transit credit killed: 15 per cent non-refundable public transit tax credit phased out this year.

You can find the entire 2017-18 budget here.

Science and the 2017-18 budget

For anyone interested in the science news, you’ll find most of that in the 2017 budget’s Chapter 1 — Skills, Innovation and Middle Class jobs. As well, Wayne Kondro has written up a précis in his March 22, 2017 article for Science (magazine),

Finance officials, who speak on condition of anonymity during the budget lock-up, indicated the budgets of the granting councils, the main source of operational grants for university researchers, will be “static” until the government can assess recommendations that emerge from an expert panel formed in 2015 and headed by former University of Toronto President David Naylor to review basic science in Canada [highlighted in my June 15, 2016 posting ; $2M has been allocated for the advisor and associated secretariat]. Until then, the officials said, funding for the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) will remain at roughly $848 million, whereas that for the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) will remain at $773 million, and for the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council [SSHRC] at $547 million.

NSERC, though, will receive $8.1 million over 5 years to administer a PromoScience Program that introduces youth, particularly unrepresented groups like Aboriginal people and women, to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics through measures like “space camps and conservation projects.” CIHR, meanwhile, could receive modest amounts from separate plans to identify climate change health risks and to reduce drug and substance abuse, the officials added.

… Canada’s Innovation and Skills Plan, would funnel $600 million over 5 years allocated in 2016, and $112.5 million slated for public transit and green infrastructure, to create Silicon Valley–like “super clusters,” which the budget defined as “dense areas of business activity that contain large and small companies, post-secondary institutions and specialized talent and infrastructure.” …

… The Canadian Institute for Advanced Research will receive $93.7 million [emphasis mine] to “launch a Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy … (to) position Canada as a world-leading destination for companies seeking to invest in artificial intelligence and innovation.”

… Among more specific measures are vows to: Use $87.7 million in previous allocations to the Canada Research Chairs program to create 25 “Canada 150 Research Chairs” honoring the nation’s 150th year of existence, provide $1.5 million per year to support the operations of the office of the as-yet-unappointed national science adviser [see my Dec. 7, 2016 post for information about the job posting, which is now closed]; provide $165.7 million [emphasis mine] over 5 years for the nonprofit organization Mitacs to create roughly 6300 more co-op positions for university students and grads, and provide $60.7 million over five years for new Canadian Space Agency projects, particularly for Canadian participation in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s next Mars Orbiter Mission.

Kondros was either reading an earlier version of the budget or made an error regarding Mitacs (from the budget in the “A New, Ambitious Approach to Work-Integrated Learning” subsection),

Mitacs has set an ambitious goal of providing 10,000 work-integrated learning placements for Canadian post-secondary students and graduates each year—up from the current level of around 3,750 placements. Budget 2017 proposes to provide $221 million [emphasis mine] over five years, starting in 2017–18, to achieve this goal and provide relevant work experience to Canadian students.

As well, the budget item for the Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy is $125M.

Moving from Kondros’ précis, the budget (in the “Positioning National Research Council Canada Within the Innovation and Skills Plan” subsection) announces support for these specific areas of science,

Stem Cell Research

The Stem Cell Network, established in 2001, is a national not-for-profit organization that helps translate stem cell research into clinical applications, commercial products and public policy. Its research holds great promise, offering the potential for new therapies and medical treatments for respiratory and heart diseases, cancer, diabetes, spinal cord injury, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, auto-immune disorders and Parkinson’s disease. To support this important work, Budget 2017 proposes to provide the Stem Cell Network with renewed funding of $6 million in 2018–19.

Space Exploration

Canada has a long and proud history as a space-faring nation. As our international partners prepare to chart new missions, Budget 2017 proposes investments that will underscore Canada’s commitment to innovation and leadership in space. Budget 2017 proposes to provide $80.9 million on a cash basis over five years, starting in 2017–18, for new projects through the Canadian Space Agency that will demonstrate and utilize Canadian innovations in space, including in the field of quantum technology as well as for Mars surface observation. The latter project will enable Canada to join the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA’s) next Mars Orbiter Mission.

Quantum Information

The development of new quantum technologies has the potential to transform markets, create new industries and produce leading-edge jobs. The Institute for Quantum Computing is a world-leading Canadian research facility that furthers our understanding of these innovative technologies. Budget 2017 proposes to provide the Institute with renewed funding of $10 million over two years, starting in 2017–18.

Social Innovation

Through community-college partnerships, the Community and College Social Innovation Fund fosters positive social outcomes, such as the integration of vulnerable populations into Canadian communities. Following the success of this pilot program, Budget 2017 proposes to invest $10 million over two years, starting in 2017–18, to continue this work.

International Research Collaborations

The Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR) connects Canadian researchers with collaborative research networks led by eminent Canadian and international researchers on topics that touch all humanity. Past collaborations facilitated by CIFAR are credited with fostering Canada’s leadership in artificial intelligence and deep learning. Budget 2017 proposes to provide renewed and enhanced funding of $35 million over five years, starting in 2017–18.

Earlier this week, I highlighted Canada’s strength in the field of regenerative medicine, specifically stem cells in a March 21, 2017 posting. The $6M in the current budget doesn’t look like increased funding but rather a one-year extension. I’m sure they’re happy to receive it  but I imagine it’s a little hard to plan major research projects when you’re not sure how long your funding will last.

As for Canadian leadership in artificial intelligence, that was news to me. Here’s more from the budget,

Canada a Pioneer in Deep Learning in Machines and Brains

CIFAR’s Learning in Machines & Brains program has shaken up the field of artificial intelligence by pioneering a technique called “deep learning,” a computer technique inspired by the human brain and neural networks, which is now routinely used by the likes of Google and Facebook. The program brings together computer scientists, biologists, neuroscientists, psychologists and others, and the result is rich collaborations that have propelled artificial intelligence research forward. The program is co-directed by one of Canada’s foremost experts in artificial intelligence, the Université de Montréal’s Yoshua Bengio, and for his many contributions to the program, the University of Toronto’s Geoffrey Hinton, another Canadian leader in this field, was awarded the title of Distinguished Fellow by CIFAR in 2014.

Meanwhile, from chapter 1 of the budget in the subsection titled “Preparing for the Digital Economy,” there is this provision for children,

Providing educational opportunities for digital skills development to Canadian girls and boys—from kindergarten to grade 12—will give them the head start they need to find and keep good, well-paying, in-demand jobs. To help provide coding and digital skills education to more young Canadians, the Government intends to launch a competitive process through which digital skills training organizations can apply for funding. Budget 2017 proposes to provide $50 million over two years, starting in 2017–18, to support these teaching initiatives.

I wonder if BC Premier Christy Clark is heaving a sigh of relief. At the 2016 #BCTECH Summit, she announced that students in BC would learn to code at school and in newly enhanced coding camp programmes (see my Jan. 19, 2016 posting). Interestingly, there was no mention of additional funding to support her initiative. I guess this money from the federal government comes at a good time as we will have a provincial election later this spring where she can announce the initiative again and, this time, mention there’s money for it.

Attracting brains from afar

Ivan Semeniuk in his March 23, 2017 article (for the Globe and Mail) reads between the lines to analyze the budget’s possible impact on Canadian science,

But a between-the-lines reading of the budget document suggests the government also has another audience in mind: uneasy scientists from the United States and Britain.

The federal government showed its hand at the 2017 #BCTECH Summit. From a March 16, 2017 article by Meera Bains for the CBC news online,

At the B.C. tech summit, Navdeep Bains, Canada’s minister of innovation, said the government will act quickly to fast track work permits to attract highly skilled talent from other countries.

“We’re taking the processing time, which takes months, and reducing it to two weeks for immigration processing for individuals [who] need to come here to help companies grow and scale up,” Bains said.

“So this is a big deal. It’s a game changer.”

That change will happen through the Global Talent Stream, a new program under the federal government’s temporary foreign worker program.  It’s scheduled to begin on June 12, 2017.

U.S. companies are taking notice and a Canadian firm, True North, is offering to help them set up shop.

“What we suggest is that they think about moving their operations, or at least a chunk of their operations, to Vancouver, set up a Canadian subsidiary,” said the company’s founder, Michael Tippett.

“And that subsidiary would be able to house and accommodate those employees.”

Industry experts says while the future is unclear for the tech sector in the U.S., it’s clear high tech in B.C. is gearing up to take advantage.

US business attempts to take advantage of Canada’s relative stability and openness to immigration would seem to be the motive for at least one cross border initiative, the Cascadia Urban Analytics Cooperative. From my Feb. 28, 2017 posting,

There was some big news about the smallest version of the Cascadia region on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017 when the University of British Columbia (UBC) , the University of Washington (state; UW), and Microsoft announced the launch of the Cascadia Urban Analytics Cooperative. From the joint Feb. 23, 2017 news release (read on the UBC website or read on the UW website),

In an expansion of regional cooperation, the University of British Columbia and the University of Washington today announced the establishment of the Cascadia Urban Analytics Cooperative to use data to help cities and communities address challenges from traffic to homelessness. The largest industry-funded research partnership between UBC and the UW, the collaborative will bring faculty, students and community stakeholders together to solve problems, and is made possible thanks to a $1-million gift from Microsoft.

Today’s announcement follows last September’s [2016] Emerging Cascadia Innovation Corridor Conference in Vancouver, B.C. The forum brought together regional leaders for the first time to identify concrete opportunities for partnerships in education, transportation, university research, human capital and other areas.

A Boston Consulting Group study unveiled at the conference showed the region between Seattle and Vancouver has “high potential to cultivate an innovation corridor” that competes on an international scale, but only if regional leaders work together. The study says that could be possible through sustained collaboration aided by an educated and skilled workforce, a vibrant network of research universities and a dynamic policy environment.

It gets better, it seems Microsoft has been positioning itself for a while if Matt Day’s analysis is correct (from my Feb. 28, 2017 posting),

Matt Day in a Feb. 23, 2017 article for the The Seattle Times provides additional perspective (Note: Links have been removed),

Microsoft’s effort to nudge Seattle and Vancouver, B.C., a bit closer together got an endorsement Thursday [Feb. 23, 2017] from the leading university in each city.

The partnership has its roots in a September [2016] conference in Vancouver organized by Microsoft’s public affairs and lobbying unit [emphasis mine.] That gathering was aimed at tying business, government and educational institutions in Microsoft’s home region in the Seattle area closer to its Canadian neighbor.

Microsoft last year [2016] opened an expanded office in downtown Vancouver with space for 750 employees, an outpost partly designed to draw to the Northwest more engineers than the company can get through the U.S. guest worker system [emphasis mine].

This was all prior to President Trump’s legislative moves in the US, which have at least one Canadian observer a little more gleeful than I’m comfortable with. From a March 21, 2017 article by Susan Lum  for CBC News online,

U.S. President Donald Trump’s efforts to limit travel into his country while simultaneously cutting money from science-based programs provides an opportunity for Canada’s science sector, says a leading Canadian researcher.

“This is Canada’s moment. I think it’s a time we should be bold,” said Alan Bernstein, president of CIFAR [which on March 22, 2017 was awarded $125M to launch the Pan Canada Artificial Intelligence Strategy in the Canadian federal budget announcement], a global research network that funds hundreds of scientists in 16 countries.

Bernstein believes there are many reasons why Canada has become increasingly attractive to scientists around the world, including the political climate in the United States and the Trump administration’s travel bans.

Thankfully, Bernstein calms down a bit,

“It used to be if you were a bright young person anywhere in the world, you would want to go to Harvard or Berkeley or Stanford, or what have you. Now I think you should give pause to that,” he said. “We have pretty good universities here [emphasis mine]. We speak English. We’re a welcoming society for immigrants.”​

Bernstein cautions that Canada should not be seen to be poaching scientists from the United States — but there is an opportunity.

“It’s as if we’ve been in a choir of an opera in the back of the stage and all of a sudden the stars all left the stage. And the audience is expecting us to sing an aria. So we should sing,” Bernstein said.

Bernstein said the federal government, with this week’s so-called innovation budget, can help Canada hit the right notes.

“Innovation is built on fundamental science, so I’m looking to see if the government is willing to support, in a big way, fundamental science in the country.”

Pretty good universities, eh? Thank you, Dr. Bernstein, for keeping some of the boosterism in check. Let’s leave the chest thumping to President Trump and his cronies.

Ivan Semeniuk’s March 23, 2017 article (for the Globe and Mail) provides more details about the situation in the US and in Britain,

Last week, Donald Trump’s first budget request made clear the U.S. President would significantly reduce or entirely eliminate research funding in areas such as climate science and renewable energy if permitted by Congress. Even the National Institutes of Health, which spearheads medical research in the United States and is historically supported across party lines, was unexpectedly targeted for a $6-billion (U.S.) cut that the White House said could be achieved through “efficiencies.”

In Britain, a recent survey found that 42 per cent of academics were considering leaving the country over worries about a less welcoming environment and the loss of research money that a split with the European Union is expected to bring.

In contrast, Canada’s upbeat language about science in the budget makes a not-so-subtle pitch for diversity and talent from abroad, including $117.6-million to establish 25 research chairs with the aim of attracting “top-tier international scholars.”

For good measure, the budget also includes funding for science promotion and $2-million annually for Canada’s yet-to-be-hired Chief Science Advisor, whose duties will include ensuring that government researchers can speak freely about their work.

“What we’ve been hearing over the last few months is that Canada is seen as a beacon, for its openness and for its commitment to science,” said Ms. Duncan [Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science], who did not refer directly to either the United States or Britain in her comments.

Providing a less optimistic note, Erica Alini in her March 22, 2017 online article for Global News mentions a perennial problem, the Canadian brain drain,

The budget includes a slew of proposed reforms and boosted funding for existing training programs, as well as new skills-development resources for unemployed and underemployed Canadians not covered under current EI-funded programs.

There are initiatives to help women and indigenous people get degrees or training in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (the so-called STEM subjects) and even to teach kids as young as kindergarten-age to code.

But there was no mention of how to make sure Canadians with the right skills remain in Canada, TD’s DePratto {Toronto Dominion Bank} Economics; TD is currently experiencing a scandal {March 13, 2017 Huffington Post news item}] told Global News.

Canada ranks in the middle of the pack compared to other advanced economies when it comes to its share of its graduates in STEM fields, but the U.S. doesn’t shine either, said DePratto [Brian DePratto, senior economist at TD .

The key difference between Canada and the U.S. is the ability to retain domestic talent and attract brains from all over the world, he noted.

To be blunt, there may be some opportunities for Canadian science but it does well to remember (a) US businesses have no particular loyalty to Canada and (b) all it takes is an election to change any perceived advantages to disadvantages.

Digital policy and intellectual property issues

Dubbed by some as the ‘innovation’ budget (official title:  Building a Strong Middle Class), there is an attempt to address a longstanding innovation issue (from a March 22, 2017 posting by Michael Geist on his eponymous blog (Note: Links have been removed),

The release of today’s [march 22, 2017] federal budget is expected to include a significant emphasis on innovation, with the government revealing how it plans to spend (or re-allocate) hundreds of millions of dollars that is intended to support innovation. Canada’s dismal innovation record needs attention, but spending our way to a more innovative economy is unlikely to yield the desired results. While Navdeep Bains, the Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister, has talked for months about the importance of innovation, Toronto Star columnist Paul Wells today delivers a cutting but accurate assessment of those efforts:

“This government is the first with a minister for innovation! He’s Navdeep Bains. He frequently posts photos of his meetings on Twitter, with the hashtag “#innovation.” That’s how you know there is innovation going on. A year and a half after he became the minister for #innovation, it’s not clear what Bains’s plans are. It’s pretty clear that within the government he has less than complete control over #innovation. There’s an advisory council on economic growth, chaired by the McKinsey guru Dominic Barton, which periodically reports to the government urging more #innovation.

There’s a science advisory panel, chaired by former University of Toronto president David Naylor, that delivered a report to Science Minister Kirsty Duncan more than three months ago. That report has vanished. One presumes that’s because it offered some advice. Whatever Bains proposes, it will have company.”

Wells is right. Bains has been very visible with plenty of meetings and public photo shoots but no obvious innovation policy direction. This represents a missed opportunity since Bains has plenty of policy tools at his disposal that could advance Canada’s innovation framework without focusing on government spending.

For example, Canada’s communications system – wireless and broadband Internet access – falls directly within his portfolio and is crucial for both business and consumers. Yet Bains has been largely missing in action on the file. He gave approval for the Bell – MTS merger that virtually everyone concedes will increase prices in the province and make the communications market less competitive. There are potential policy measures that could bring new competitors into the market (MVNOs [mobile virtual network operators] and municipal broadband) and that could make it easier for consumers to switch providers (ban on unlocking devices). Some of this falls to the CRTC, but government direction and emphasis would make a difference.

Even more troubling has been his near total invisibility on issues relating to new fees or taxes on Internet access and digital services. Canadian Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly has taken control of the issue with the possibility that Canadians could face increased costs for their Internet access or digital services through mandatory fees to contribute to Canadian content.  Leaving aside the policy objections to such an approach (reducing affordable access and the fact that foreign sources now contribute more toward Canadian English language TV production than Canadian broadcasters and distributors), Internet access and e-commerce are supposed to be Bains’ issue and they have a direct connection to the innovation file. How is it possible for the Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister to have remained silent for months on the issue?

Bains has been largely missing on trade related innovation issues as well. My Globe and Mail column today focuses on a digital-era NAFTA, pointing to likely U.S. demands on data localization, data transfers, e-commerce rules, and net neutrality.  These are all issues that fall under Bains’ portfolio and will impact investment in Canadian networks and digital services. There are innovation opportunities for Canada here, but Bains has been content to leave the policy issues to others, who will be willing to sacrifice potential gains in those areas.

Intellectual property policy is yet another area that falls directly under Bains’ mandate with an obvious link to innovation, but he has done little on the file. Canada won a huge NAFTA victory late last week involving the Canadian patent system, which was challenged by pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly. Why has Bains not promoted the decision as an affirmation of how Canada’s intellectual property rules?

On the copyright front, the government is scheduled to conduct a review of the Copyright Act later this year, but it is not clear whether Bains will take the lead or again cede responsibility to Joly. The Copyright Act is statutorily under the Industry Minister and reform offers the chance to kickstart innovation. …

For anyone who’s not familiar with this area, innovation is often code for commercialization of science and technology research efforts. These days, digital service and access policies and intellectual property policies are all key to research and innovation efforts.

The country that’s most often (except in mainstream Canadian news media) held up as an example of leadership in innovation is Estonia. The Economist profiled the country in a July 31, 2013 article and a July 7, 2016 article on apolitical.co provides and update.

Conclusions

Science monies for the tri-council science funding agencies (NSERC, SSHRC, and CIHR) are more or less flat but there were a number of line items in the federal budget which qualify as science funding. The $221M over five years for Mitacs, the $125M for the Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy, additional funding for the Canada research chairs, and some of the digital funding could also be included as part of the overall haul. This is in line with the former government’s (Stephen Harper’s Conservatives) penchant for keeping the tri-council’s budgets under control while spreading largesse elsewhere (notably the Perimeter Institute, TRIUMF [Canada’s National Laboratory for Particle and Nuclear Physics], and, in the 2015 budget, $243.5-million towards the Thirty Metre Telescope (TMT) — a massive astronomical observatory to be constructed on the summit of Mauna Kea, Hawaii, a $1.5-billion project). This has lead to some hard feelings in the past with regard to ‘big science’ projects getting what some have felt is an undeserved boost in finances while the ‘small fish’ are left scrabbling for the ever-diminishing (due to budget cuts in years past and inflation) pittances available from the tri-council agencies.

Mitacs, which started life as a federally funded Network Centre for Excellence focused on mathematics, has since shifted focus to become an innovation ‘champion’. You can find Mitacs here and you can find the organization’s March 2016 budget submission to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance here. At the time, they did not request a specific amount of money; they just asked for more.

The amount Mitacs expects to receive this year is over $40M which represents more than double what they received from the federal government and almost of 1/2 of their total income in the 2015-16 fiscal year according to their 2015-16 annual report (see p. 327 for the Mitacs Statement of Operations to March 31, 2016). In fact, the federal government forked over $39,900,189. in the 2015-16 fiscal year to be their largest supporter while Mitacs’ total income (receipts) was $81,993,390.

It’s a strange thing but too much money, etc. can be as bad as too little. I wish the folks Mitacs nothing but good luck with their windfall.

I don’t see anything in the budget that encourages innovation and investment from the industrial sector in Canada.

Finallyl, innovation is a cultural issue as much as it is a financial issue and having worked with a number of developers and start-up companies, the most popular business model is to develop a successful business that will be acquired by a large enterprise thereby allowing the entrepreneurs to retire before the age of 30 (or 40 at the latest). I don’t see anything from the government acknowledging the problem let alone any attempts to tackle it.

All in all, it was a decent budget with nothing in it to seriously offend anyone.

Graphene Canada and its second annual conference

An Aug. 31, 2016 news item on Nanotechnology Now announces Canada’s second graphene-themed conference,

The 2nd edition of Graphene & 2D Materials Canada 2016 International Conference & Exhibition (www.graphenecanadaconf.com) will take place in Montreal (Canada): 18-20 October, 2016.

– An industrial forum with focus on Graphene Commercialization (Abalonyx, Alcereco Inc, AMO GmbH, Avanzare, AzTrong Inc, Bosch GmbH, China Innovation Alliance of the Graphene Industry (CGIA), Durham University & Applied Graphene Materials, Fujitsu Laboratories Ltd., Hanwha Techwin, Haydale, IDTechEx, North Carolina Central University & Chaowei Power Ltd, NTNU&CrayoNano, Phantoms Foundation, Southeast University, The Graphene Council, University of Siegen, University of Sunderland and University of Waterloo)
– Extensive thematic workshops in parallel (Materials & Devices Characterization, Chemistry, Biosensors & Energy and Electronic Devices)
– A significant exhibition (Abalonyx, Go Foundation, Grafoid, Group NanoXplore Inc., Raymor | Nanointegris and Suragus GmbH)

As I noted in my 2015 post about Graphene Canada and its conference, the group is organized in a rather interesting fashion and I see the tradition continues, i.e., the lead organizers seem to be situated in countries other than Canada. From the Aug. 31, 2016 news item on Nanotechnology Now,

Organisers: Phantoms Foundation [located in Spain] www.phantomsnet.net
Catalan Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology – ICN2 (Spain) | CEMES/CNRS (France) | GO Foundation (Canada) | Grafoid Inc (Canada) | Graphene Labs – IIT (Italy) | McGill University (Canada) | Texas Instruments (USA) | Université Catholique de Louvain (Belgium) | Université de Montreal (Canada)

You can find the conference website here.

Very precise nanorobots redefine the administration of anti-cancer drugs

A very exuberant announcement has been made about cancer drug delivery by precise nanorobots, which have been tested in mice, in an Aug. 15, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily,

Researchers from Polytechnique Montréal, Université de Montréal and McGill University have just achieved a spectacular breakthrough in cancer research. They have developed new nanorobotic agents capable of navigating through the bloodstream to administer a drug with precision by specifically targeting the active cancerous cells of tumours. This way of injecting medication ensures the optimal targeting of a tumour and avoids jeopardizing the integrity of organs and surrounding healthy tissues. As a result, the drug dosage that is highly toxic for the human organism could be significantly reduced.

This scientific breakthrough has just been published in the prestigious journal Nature Nanotechnology in an article titled “Magneto-aerotactic bacteria deliver drug-containing nanoliposomes to tumour hypoxic regions.” The article notes the results of the research done on mice, which were successfully administered nanorobotic agents into colorectal tumours.

An Aug. 15, 2016 Polytechnique Montréal news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the work and the nanorobots or nanorobotic agents (bacteria) in more detail,

“These legions of nanorobotic agents were actually composed of more than 100 million flagellated bacteria – and therefore self-propelled – and loaded with drugs that moved by taking the most direct path between the drug’s injection point and the area of the body to cure,” explains Professor Sylvain Martel, holder of the Canada Research Chair in Medical Nanorobotics and Director of the Polytechnique Montréal Nanorobotics Laboratory, who heads the research team’s work. “The drug’s propelling force was enough to travel efficiently and enter deep inside the tumours.”

When they enter a tumour, the nanorobotic agents can detect in a wholly autonomous fashion the oxygen-depleted tumour areas, known as hypoxic zones, and deliver the drug to them. This hypoxic zone is created by the substantial consumption of oxygen by rapidly proliferative tumour cells. Hypoxic zones are known to be resistant to most therapies, including radiotherapy.

But gaining access to tumours by taking paths as minute as a red blood cell and crossing complex physiological micro-environments does not come without challenges. So Professor Martel and his team used nanotechnology to do it.

Bacteria with compass

To move around, bacteria used by Professor Martel’s team rely on two natural systems. A kind of compass created by the synthesis of a chain of magnetic nanoparticles allows them to move in the direction of a magnetic field, while a sensor measuring oxygen concentration enables them to reach and remain in the tumour’s active regions. By harnessing these two transportation systems and by exposing the bacteria to a computer-controlled magnetic field, researchers showed that these bacteria could perfectly replicate artificial nanorobots of the future designed for this kind of task.

“This innovative use of nanotransporters will have an impact not only on creating more advanced engineering concepts and original intervention methods, but it also throws the door wide open to the synthesis of new vehicles for therapeutic, imaging and diagnostic agents,” Professor Martel adds. “Chemotherapy, which is so toxic for the entire human body, could make use of these natural nanorobots to move drugs directly to the targeted area, eliminating the harmful side effects while also boosting its therapeutic effectiveness.”

This news contrasts somewhat with research at the University of Toronto (my April 27, 2016 posting) investigating how many drug-carrying nanoparticles find the cancer tumours they are intended for. The answer was that less than 1% make their way to the tumour and the conclusion those scientists reached was that we don’t know enough about how materials are delivered to the cells. My question, are the bacteria/nanorobots better at finding the tumours/cells? It’s not clear from the news release.

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

Magneto-aerotactic bacteria deliver drug-containing nanoliposomes to tumour hypoxic regions by Ouajdi Felfoul, Mahmood Mohammadi, Samira Taherkhani, Dominic de Lanauze, Yong Zhong Xu, Dumitru Loghin, Sherief Essa, Sylwia Jancik, Daniel Houle, Michel Lafleur, Louis Gaboury, Maryam Tabrizian, Neila Kaou, Michael Atkin, Té Vuong, Gerald Batist, Nicole Beauchemin, Danuta Radzioch, & Sylvain Martel. Nature Nanotechnology (2016)  doi:10.1038/nnano.2016.137 Published online 15 August 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.

Taking DNA beyond genetics with living computers and nanobots

You might want to keep a salt shaker with you while reading a June 7, 2016 essay by Matteo Palma (Queen Mary’s University of London) about nanotechnology and DNA on The Conversation website (h/t June 7, 2016 news item on Nanowerk).

This is not a ‘hype’ piece as Palma backs every claim with links to the research while providing a good overview of some very exciting work but the mood is a bit euphoric so you may want to keep the earlier mentioned salt shaker nearby.

Palma offers a very nice beginner introduction especially helpful for someone who only half-remembers their high school biology (from the June 7, 2016 essay)

DNA is one of the most amazing molecules in nature, providing a way to carry the instructions needed to create almost any lifeform on Earth in a microscopic package. Now scientists are finding ways to push DNA even further, using it not just to store information but to create physical components in a range of biological machines.

Deoxyribonucleic acid or “DNA” carries the genetic information that we, and all living organisms, use to function. It typically comes in the form of the famous double-helix shape, made up of two single-stranded DNA molecules folded into a spiral. Each of these is made up of a series of four different types of molecular component: adenine (A), guanine (G), thymine (T), and cytosine (C).

Genes are made up from different sequences of these building block components, and the order in which they appear in a strand of DNA is what encodes genetic information. But by precisely designing different A,G,T and C sequences, scientists have recently been able to develop new ways of folding DNA into different origami shapes, beyond the conventional double helix.

This approach has opened up new possibilities of using DNA beyond its genetic and biological purpose, turning it into a Lego-like material for building objects that are just a few billionths of a metre in diameter (nanoscale). DNA-based materials are now being used for a variety of applications, ranging from templates for electronic nano-devices, to ways of precisely carrying drugs to diseased cells.

He highlights some Canadian work,

Designing electronic devices that are just nanometres in size opens up all sorts of possible applications but makes it harder to spot defects. As a way of dealing with this, researchers at the University of Montreal have used DNA to create ultrasensitive nanoscale thermometers that could help find minuscule hotspots in nanodevices (which would indicate a defect). They could also be used to monitor the temperature inside living cells.

The nanothermometers are made using loops of DNA that act as switches, folding or unfolding in response to temperature changes. This movement can be detected by attaching optical probes to the DNA. The researchers now want to build these nanothermometers into larger DNA devices that can work inside the human body.

He also mentions the nanobots that will heal your body (according to many works of fiction),

Researchers at Harvard Medical School have used DNA to design and build a nanosized robot that acts as a drug delivery vehicle to target specific cells. The nanorobot comes in the form of an open barrel made of DNA, whose two halves are connected by a hinge held shut by special DNA handles. These handles can recognise combinations of specific proteins present on the surface of cells, including ones associated with diseases.

When the robot comes into contact with the right cells, it opens the container and delivers its cargo. When applied to a mixture of healthy and cancerous human blood cells, these robots showed the ability to target and kill half of the cancer cells, while the healthy cells were left unharmed.

Palma is describing a very exciting development and there are many teams worldwide working on ways to make drugs more effective and less side effect-ridden. However there does seem to be a bit of a problem with targeted drug delivery as noted in my April 27, 2016 posting,

According to an April 27, 2016 news item on Nanowerk researchers at the University of Toronto (Canada) along with their collaborators in the US (Harvard Medical School) and Japan (University of Tokyo) have determined that less than 1% of nanoparticle-based drugs reach their intended destination …

Less than 1%? Admittedly, nanoparticles are not the same as nanobots but the problem is in the delivery, from my April 27, 2016 posting,

… the authors argue that, in order to increase nanoparticle delivery efficiency, a systematic and coordinated long-term strategy is necessary. To build a strong foundation for the field of cancer nanomedicine, researchers will need to understand a lot more about the interactions between nanoparticles and the body’s various organs than they do today. …

I imagine nanobots will suffer a similar fate since the actual delivery mechanism to a targeted cell is still a mystery.

I quite enjoyed Palma’s essay and appreciated the links he provided. My only proviso, keep a salt shaker nearby. That rosy future is going take a while to get here.

Interconnected performance analysis music hub shared by McGill University and Université de Montréal announced* June 2, 2016

The press releases promise the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Music Media and Technology (CIRMMT) will shape the future of music. The CIRMMT June 2, 2016 (Future of Music) press release (received via email) describes the funding support,

A significant investment of public and private support that will redefine the future of music research in Canada by transforming the way musicians compose,listen and perform music.

The Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Music Media and Technology (CIRMMT), the Schulich School of Music of McGill University and the Faculty of Music of l’Université de Montréal are creating a unique interconnected research hub that will quite literally link two exceptional spaces at two of Canada’s most renowned music schools.

Imagine a new space and community where musicians, scientists and engineers join forces to gain a better understanding of the influence that music plays on individuals as well as their physical, psychological and even neurological conditions; experience the acoustics of an 18th century Viennese concert hall created with the touch of a fingertip; or attending an orchestral performance in one concert hall but hearing and seeing musicians performing from a completely different venue across town… All this and more will soon become possible here in Montreal!

The combination of public and private gifts will broaden our musical horizons exponentially thanks to significant investment for music research in Canada. With over $14.5 million in grants from the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI), the Government of Quebec and the Fonds de Recherche du Québec (FRQ), and a substantial contribution of an additional $2.5million gift from private philanthropy.

“We are grateful for this exceptional investment in music research from both the federal and provincial governments and from our generous donors,” says McGill Principal Suzanne Fortier. “This will further the collaboration between these two outstanding music schools and support the training of the next generation of music researchers and artists. For anyone who loves music, this is very exciting news.”

There’s not much technical detail in this one but here it is,

Digital channels coupling McGill University’s Music Multimedia Room (MMR – a large, sound-isolated performance lab) and l’Université de Montréal’s Salle Claude Champagne ([SCC -] a superb concert hall) will transform these two exceptional spaces into the world’s leading research facility for the scientific study of live performance, movement of recorded sound in space, and distributed performance (where musicians in different locations perform together).

“The interaction between scientific/technological research and artistic practice is one of the most fruitful avenues for future developments in both fields. This remarkable investment in music research is a wonderful recognition of the important contributions of the arts to Canadian society”, says Sean Ferguson, Dean of Schulich School of Music

The other CIRMMT June 2, 2016 (Collaborative hub) press  release (received via email) elaborates somewhat on the technology,

The MMR (McGill University’s Music Multimedia Room) will undergo complete renovations which include the addition of high quality variable acoustical treatment and a state-of-the-art rigging system. An active enhancement and sound spatialization system, together with stereoscopic projectors and displays, will provide virtual acoustic and immersive environments. At the SCC (l’Université de Montréal’s Salle Claude Champagne), the creation of a laboratory, a control room and a customizable rigging system will enable the installation and utilization of new research equipment’s in this acoustically-rich environment. These improvements will drastically augment the research possibilities in the hall, making it a unique hub in Canada for researchers to validate their experiments in a real concert hall.

“This infrastructure will provide exceptional spaces for performance analysis of multiple performers and audience members simultaneously, with equipment such as markerless motion-capture equipment and eye trackers. It will also connect both spaces for experimentations on distributed performances and will make possible new kinds of multimedia artworks.

The research and benefits

The research program includes looking at audio recording technologies, audio and video in immersive environments, and ultra-videoconferencing, leading to the development of new technologies for audio recording, film, television, distance education, and multi-media artworks; as well as a focus on cognition and perception in musical performance by large ensembles and on the rhythmical synchronization and sound blending of performers.

Social benefits include distance learning, videoconferencing, and improvements to the quality of both recorded music and live performance. Health benefits include improved hearing aids, noise reduction in airplanes and public spaces, and science-based music pedagogies and therapy. Economic benefits include innovations in sound recording, film and video games, and the training of highly qualified personnel across disciplines.

Amongst other activities they will be exploring data sonification as it relates to performance.

Hopefully, I’ll have more after the livestreamed press conference being held this afternoon, June 2, 2016,  (2:30 pm EST) at the CIRMMT.

*’opens’ changed to ‘announced’ on June 2, 2016 at 1335 hours PST.

ETA June 8, 2016: I did attend the press conference via livestream. There was some lovely violin played and the piece proved to be a demonstration of the work they’re hoping to expand on now that there will be a CIRMMT (pronounced kermit). There was a lot of excitement and I think that’s largely due to the number of years it’s taken to get to this point. One of the speakers reminisced about being a music student at McGill in the 1970s when they first started talking about getting a new music building.

They did get their building but have unable to complete it until these 2016 funds were awarded. Honestly, all the speakers seemed a bit giddy with delight. I wish them all congratulations!

Replace silicon with black phosphorus instead of graphene?

I have two black phosphorus pieces. This first piece of research comes out of ‘La belle province’ or, as it’s more usually called, Québec (Canada).

Foundational research on phosphorene

There’s a lot of interest in replacing silicon for a number of reasons and, increasingly, there’s interest in finding an alternative to graphene.

A July 7, 2015 news item on Nanotechnology Now describes a new material for use as transistors,

As scientists continue to hunt for a material that will make it possible to pack more transistors on a chip, new research from McGill University and Université de Montréal adds to evidence that black phosphorus could emerge as a strong candidate.

In a study published today in Nature Communications, the researchers report that when electrons move in a phosphorus transistor, they do so only in two dimensions. The finding suggests that black phosphorus could help engineers surmount one of the big challenges for future electronics: designing energy-efficient transistors.

A July 7, 2015 McGill University news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, describes the field of 2D materials and the research into black phosphorus and its 2D version, phosperene (analogous to graphite and graphene),

“Transistors work more efficiently when they are thin, with electrons moving in only two dimensions,” says Thomas Szkopek, an associate professor in McGill’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and senior author of the new study. “Nothing gets thinner than a single layer of atoms.”

In 2004, physicists at the University of Manchester in the U.K. first isolated and explored the remarkable properties of graphene — a one-atom-thick layer of carbon. Since then scientists have rushed to to investigate a range of other two-dimensional materials. One of those is black phosphorus, a form of phosphorus that is similar to graphite and can be separated easily into single atomic layers, known as phosphorene.

Phosphorene has sparked growing interest because it overcomes many of the challenges of using graphene in electronics. Unlike graphene, which acts like a metal, black phosphorus is a natural semiconductor: it can be readily switched on and off.

“To lower the operating voltage of transistors, and thereby reduce the heat they generate, we have to get closer and closer to designing the transistor at the atomic level,” Szkopek says. “The toolbox of the future for transistor designers will require a variety of atomic-layered materials: an ideal semiconductor, an ideal metal, and an ideal dielectric. All three components must be optimized for a well designed transistor. Black phosphorus fills the semiconducting-material role.”

The work resulted from a multidisciplinary collaboration among Szkopek’s nanoelectronics research group, the nanoscience lab of McGill Physics Prof. Guillaume Gervais, and the nanostructures research group of Prof. Richard Martel in Université de Montréal’s Department of Chemistry.

To examine how the electrons move in a phosphorus transistor, the researchers observed them under the influence of a magnetic field in experiments performed at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory in Tallahassee, FL, the largest and highest-powered magnet laboratory in the world. This research “provides important insights into the fundamental physics that dictate the behavior of black phosphorus,” says Tim Murphy, DC Field Facility Director at the Florida facility.

“What’s surprising in these results is that the electrons are able to be pulled into a sheet of charge which is two-dimensional, even though they occupy a volume that is several atomic layers in thickness,” Szkopek says. That finding is significant because it could potentially facilitate manufacturing the material — though at this point “no one knows how to manufacture this material on a large scale.”

“There is a great emerging interest around the world in black phosphorus,” Szkopek says. “We are still a long way from seeing atomic layer transistors in a commercial product, but we have now moved one step closer.”

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

Two-dimensional magnetotransport in a black phosphorus naked quantum well by V. Tayari, N. Hemsworth, I. Fakih, A. Favron, E. Gaufrès, G. Gervais, R. Martel & T. Szkopek. Nature Communications 6, Article number: 7702 doi:10.1038/ncomms8702 Published 07 July 2015

This is an open access paper.

The second piece of research into black phosphorus is courtesy of an international collaboration.

A phosporene transistor

A July 9, 2015 Technical University of Munich (TUM) press release (also on EurekAlert) describes the formation of a phosphorene transistor made possible by the introduction of arsenic,

Chemists at the Technische Universität München (TUM) have now developed a semiconducting material in which individual phosphorus atoms are replaced by arsenic. In a collaborative international effort, American colleagues have built the first field-effect transistors from the new material.

For many decades silicon has formed the basis of modern electronics. To date silicon technology could provide ever tinier transistors for smaller and smaller devices. But the size of silicon transistors is reaching its physical limit. Also, consumers would like to have flexible devices, devices that can be incorporated into clothing and the likes. However, silicon is hard and brittle. All this has triggered a race for new materials that might one day replace silicon.

Black arsenic phosphorus might be such a material. Like graphene, which consists of a single layer of carbon atoms, it forms extremely thin layers. The array of possible applications ranges from transistors and sensors to mechanically flexible semiconductor devices. Unlike graphene, whose electronic properties are similar to those of metals, black arsenic phosphorus behaves like a semiconductor.

The press release goes on to provide more detail about the collaboration and the research,

A cooperation between the Technical University of Munich and the University of Regensburg on the German side and the University of Southern California (USC) and Yale University in the United States has now, for the first time, produced a field effect transistor made of black arsenic phosphorus. The compounds were synthesized by Marianne Koepf at the laboratory of the research group for Synthesis and Characterization of Innovative Materials at the TUM. The field effect transistors were built and characterized by a group headed by Professor Zhou and Dr. Liu at the Department of Electrical Engineering at USC.

The new technology developed at TUM allows the synthesis of black arsenic phosphorus without high pressure. This requires less energy and is cheaper. The gap between valence and conduction bands can be precisely controlled by adjusting the arsenic concentration. “This allows us to produce materials with previously unattainable electronic and optical properties in an energy window that was hitherto inaccessible,” says Professor Tom Nilges, head of the research group for Synthesis and Characterization of Innovative Materials.

Detectors for infrared

With an arsenic concentration of 83 percent the material exhibits an extremely small band gap of only 0.15 electron volts, making it predestined for sensors which can detect long wavelength infrared radiation. LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) sensors operate in this wavelength range, for example. They are used, among other things, as distance sensors in automobiles. Another application is the measurement of dust particles and trace gases in environmental monitoring.

A further interesting aspect of these new, two-dimensional semiconductors is their anisotropic electronic and optical behavior. The material exhibits different characteristics along the x- and y-axes in the same plane. To produce graphene like films the material can be peeled off in ultra thin layers. The thinnest films obtained so far are only two atomic layers thick.

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

Black Arsenic–Phosphorus: Layered Anisotropic Infrared Semiconductors with Highly Tunable Compositions and Properties by Bilu Liu, Marianne Köpf, Ahmad N. Abbas, Xiaomu Wang, Qiushi Guo, Yichen Jia, Fengnian Xia, Richard Weihrich, Frederik Bachhuber, Florian Pielnhofer, Han Wang, Rohan Dhall, Stephen B. Cronin, Mingyuan Ge1 Xin Fang, Tom Nilges, and Chongwu Zhou. DOI: 10.1002/adma.201501758 Article first published online: 25 JUN 2015

© 2015 WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

This paper is behind a paywall.

Dexter Johnson, on his Nanoclast blog (on the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers website), adds more information about black phosphorus and its electrical properties in his July 9, 2015 posting about the Germany/US collaboration (Note: Links have been removed),

Black phosphorus has been around for about 100 years, but recently it has been synthesized as a two-dimensional material—dubbed phosphorene in reference to its two-dimensional cousin, graphene. Black phosphorus is quite attractive for electronic applications like field-effect transistors because of its inherent band gap and it is one of the few 2-D materials to be a natively p-type semiconductor.

One final comment, I notice the Germany-US work was published weeks prior to the Canadian research suggesting that the TUM July 9, 2015 press release is an attempt to capitalize on the interest generated by the Canadian research. That’s a smart move.

A race to find substitutes for graphene?

I have two items concerning research which seeks to replace graphene in one application or other.

Black phosporus and the École Polytechniqe de Montréal

A June 2, 2015 news item on Nanotechnology Now features work on developing a two-dimensional black phosphorus material, 2D phosphane,

A team of researchers from Universite de Montreal, Polytechnique Montreal and the Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS) in France is the first to succeed in preventing two-dimensional layers of black phosphorus from oxidating. In so doing, they have opened the doors to exploiting their striking properties in a number of electronic and optoelectronic devices. …

Black phosphorus, a stable allotrope of phosphorus that presents a lamellar structure similar to that of graphite, has recently begun to capture the attention of physicists and materials researchers. It is possible to obtain single atomic layers from it, which researchers call 2D phosphane. A cousin of the widely publicized graphene, 2D phosphane brings together two very sought-after properties for device design.

A June 2, 2015 École Polytechniqe de Montréal news release, which originated the news item, expands on why 2D phosphane is an appealing material,

First, 2D phosphane is a semiconductor material that provides the necessary characteristics for making transistors and processors. With its high-mobility, it is estimated that 2D phosphane could form the basis for electronics that is both high-performance and low-cost.

Furthermore, this new material features a second, even more distinctive, characteristic: its interaction with light depends on the number of atomic layers used. One monolayer will emit red light, whereas a thicker sample will emit into the infrared. This variation makes it possible to manufacture a wide range of optoelectronic devices, such as lasers or detectors, in a strategic fraction of the electromagnetic spectrum.

The news release goes on to describe an important issue with phosphane and how the scientists addressed it,

Until now, the study of 2D phosphane’s properties was slowed by a major problem: in ambient  conditions, very thin layers of the material would degrade, to the point of compromising its future in the industry despite its promising potential.

As such, the research team has made a major step forward by succeeding in determining the physical mechanisms at play in this degradation, and in identifying the key elements that lead to the layers’ oxidation.

“We have demonstrated that 2D phosphane undergoes oxidation under ambient conditions, caused jointly by the presence of oxygen, water and light. We have also characterized the phenomenon’s evolution over time by using electron beam spectroscopy and Raman spectroscopy,” reports Professor Richard Martel of Université de Montréal’s Department of Chemistry.

Next, the researchers developed an efficient procedure for producing these very fragile single-atom layers and keeping them intact.

“We were able to study the vibration modes of the atoms in this new material. Since earlier studies had been carried out on heavily degraded materials, we revealed the as-yet-unsuspected effects of quantum confinement on atoms’ vibration modes,” notes Professor Sébastien Francoeur of Polytechnique’s Department of Engineering Physics.

The study’s results will help the world scientific community develop 2D phosphane’s very special properties with the aim of developing new nanotechnologies that could give rise to high-performance microprocessors, lasers, solar cells and more.

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

Photooxidation and quantum confinement effects in exfoliated black phosphorus by Alexandre Favron, Etienne Gaufrès, Frédéric Fossard, Anne-Laurence Phaneuf-L’Heureux, Nathalie Y-W. Tang, Pierre L. Lévesque, Annick Loiseau, Richard Leonelli, Sébastien Francoeur, & Richard Martel. Nature Materials (2015)  doi:10.1038/nmat4299 Published online 25 May 2015

This paper is behind a paywall.

Now. for the second item about replacing graphene.

China’s new aerogel, a rival to graphene aerogels?

A June 2, 2015 American Institute of Physics news release (also on EurekAlert) describes research into an alternative to expensive graphene aerogels,

The electromagnetic radiation discharged by electronic equipment and devices is known to hinder their smooth operation. Conventional materials used today to shield from incoming electromagnetic waves tend to be sheets of metal or composites, which rely on reflection as a shielding mechanism.

But now, materials such as graphene aerogels are gaining traction as more desirable alternatives because they act as electromagnetic absorbers. They’re widely expected to improve energy storage, sensors, nanoelectronics, catalysis and separations, but graphene aerogels are prohibitively expensive and difficult to produce for large-scale applications because of the complicated purification and functionalization steps involved in their fabrication.

So a team of researchers in China set out to design a cheaper material with properties similar to a graphene aerogel–in terms of its conductivity, as well as a lightweight, anticorrosive, porous structure. In the journal Applied Physics Letters, from AIP Publishing, the researchers describe the new material they created and its performance.

Aming Xie, an expert in organic chemistry, and Fan Wu, both affiliated with PLA University of Science and Technology, worked with colleagues at Nanjing University of Science and Technology to tap into organic chemistry and conducting polymers to fabricate a three-dimensional (3-D) polypyrrole (PPy) aerogel-based electromagnetic absorber.

They chose to concentrate on this method because it enables them to “regulate the density and dielectric property of conducting polymers through the formation of pores during the oxidation polymerization of the pyrrole monomer,” explained Wu.

And the fabrication process is a simple one. “It requires only four common chemical reagents: pyrrole, ferric chloride (FeCl3), ethanol and water — which makes it cheap enough and enables large-scale fabrication,” Wu said. “We’re also able to pour the FeCl3 solution directly into the pyrrole solution — not drop by drop — to force the pyrrole to polymerize into a 3-D aerogel rather than PPy particles.”

In short, the team’s 3-D PPy aerogel is designed to exhibit “desirable properties such as a porous structure and low density,” Wu noted.

Beyond that, its electromagnetic absorption performance — with low loss — shows great promise. “We believe a ‘wide’ absorption range is more useful than high absorption within one frequency,” Wu said. Compared with previous works, the team’s new aerogel has the lowest adjunction and widest effective bandwidth — with a reflection loss below -10 decibels.

In terms of applications, based on the combination of low adjunction and a “wide” effective bandwidth, the researchers expect to see their 3-D PPy aerogel used in surface coatings for aircraft.

Another potential application is as coatings within the realm of corrosion prevention and control. “Common anticorrosion coatings contain a large amount of zinc (70 to 80 percent by weight), and these particles not only serve as a cathode by corroding to protect the iron structure but also to maintain a suitable conductivity for the electrochemistry process,” Wu pointed out. “If our 3-D PPy aerogel could build a conductivity network in this type of coating, the loss of zinc particles could be rapidly reduced.”

The team is now taking their work a step further by pursuing a 3-D PPy/PEDOT-based (poly(3,4-ethylenedioxythiophene) electromagnetic absorber. “Our goal is to grow solid-state polymerized PEDOT particles in the holes of the 3-D PPy aerogel formed by PPy chains,” Wu added.

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

Self-assembled ultralight three-dimensional polypyrrole aerogel for effective electromagnetic absorption by Aming Xie, Fan Wu, Mengxiao Sun, Xiaoqing Dai, Zhuanghu Xu, Yanyu Qiu, Yuan Wang, and Mingyang Wang. Appl. Phys. Lett. 106, 222902 (2015); http://dx.doi.org/10.1063/1.4921180

This paper is open access.

Reversing Parkinson’s type symptoms in rats

Indian scientists have developed a technique for delivering drugs that could reverse Parkinson-like symptoms according to an April 22, 2015 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

As baby boomers age, the number of people diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease is expected to increase. Patients who develop this disease usually start experiencing symptoms around age 60 or older. Currently, there’s no cure, but scientists are reporting a novel approach that reversed Parkinson’s-like symptoms in rats.

Their results, published in the journal ACS Nano (“Trans-Blood Brain Barrier Delivery of Dopamine-Loaded Nanoparticles Reverses Functional Deficits in Parkinsonian Rats”), could one day lead to a new therapy for human patients.

An April 22, 2015 American Chemical Society press pac news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the problem the researchers were solving (Note: Links have been removed),

Rajnish Kumar Chaturvedi, Kavita Seth, Kailash Chand Gupta and colleagues from the CSIR-Indian Institute of Toxicology Research note that among other issues, people with Parkinson’s lack dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is a chemical messenger that helps nerve cells communicate with each other and is involved in normal body movements. Reduced levels cause the shaking and mobility problems associated with Parkinson’s. Symptoms can be relieved in animal models of the disease by infusing the compound into their brains. But researchers haven’t yet figured out how to safely deliver dopamine directly to the human brain, which is protected by something called the blood-brain barrier that keeps out pathogens, as well as many medicines. Chaturvedi and Gupta’s team wanted to find a way to overcome this challenge.

The researchers packaged dopamine in biodegradable nanoparticles that have been used to deliver other therapeutic drugs to the brain. The resulting nanoparticles successfully crossed the blood-brain barrier in rats, released its dopamine payload over several days and reversed the rodents’ movement problems without causing side effects.

The authors acknowledge funding from the Indian Department of Science and Technology as Woman Scientist and Ramanna Fellow Grant, and the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (India).

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

Trans-Blood Brain Barrier Delivery of Dopamine-Loaded Nanoparticles Reverses Functional Deficits in Parkinsonian Rats by Richa Pahuja, Kavita Seth, Anshi Shukla, Rajendra Kumar Shukla, Priyanka Bhatnagar, Lalit Kumar Singh Chauhan, Prem Narain Saxena, Jharna Arun, Bhushan Pradosh Chaudhari, Devendra Kumar Patel, Sheelendra Pratap Singh, Rakesh Shukla, Vinay Kumar Khanna, Pradeep Kumar, Rajnish Kumar Chaturvedi, and Kailash Chand Gupta. ACS Nano, Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/nn506408v Publication Date (Web): March 31, 2015
Copyright © 2015 American Chemical Society

This paper is open access.

Another recent example of breaching the blood-brain barrier, coincidentally, in rats, can be found in my Dec. 24, 2014 titled: Gelatin nanoparticles for drug delivery after a stroke. Scientists are also trying to figure out the the blood-brain barrier operates in the first place as per this April 22, 2015 University of Pennsylvania news release on EurekAlert titled, Penn Vet, Montreal and McGill researchers show how blood-brain barrier is maintained (University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, University of Montreal or Université de Montréal, and McGill University). You can find out more about CSIR-Indian Institute of Toxicology Research here.

Faster, cheaper, and just as good—nanoscale device for measuring cancer drug methotrexate

Lots of cancer drugs can be toxic if the dosage is too high for individual metabolisms, which can vary greatly in their ability to break drugs down. The University of Montréal (Université de Montréal) has announced a device that could help greatly in making the technology to determine toxicity in the bloodstream faster and cheaper according to an Oct. 27, 2014 news item on Nanowerk,

In less than a minute, a miniature device developed at the University of Montreal can measure a patient’s blood for methotrexate, a commonly used but potentially toxic cancer drug. Just as accurate and ten times less expensive than equipment currently used in hospitals, this nanoscale device has an optical system that can rapidly gauge the optimal dose of methotrexate a patient needs, while minimizing the drug’s adverse effects. The research was led by Jean-François Masson and Joelle Pelletier of the university’s Department of Chemistry.

An Oct. 27, 2014 University of Montréal news release, which originated the news item, provides more specifics about the cancer drug being monitored and the research that led to the new device,

Methotrexate has been used for many years to treat certain cancers, among other diseases, because of its ability to block the enzyme dihydrofolate reductase (DHFR). This enzyme is active in the synthesis of DNA precursors and thus promotes the proliferation of cancer cells. “While effective, methotrexate is also highly toxic and can damage the healthy cells of patients, hence the importance of closely monitoring the drug’s concentration in the serum of treated individuals to adjust the dosage,” Masson explained.

Until now, monitoring has been done in hospitals with a device using fluorescent bioassays to measure light polarization produced by a drug sample. “The operation of the current device is based on a cumbersome, expensive platform that requires experienced personnel because of the many samples that need to be manipulated,” Masson said.

Six years ago, Joelle Pelletier, a specialist of the DHFR enzyme, and Jean-François Masson, an expert in biomedical instrument design, investigated how to simplify the measurement of methotrexate concentration in patients.

Gold nanoparticles on the surface of the receptacle change the colour of the light detected by the instrument. The detected colour reflects the exact concentration of the drug in the blood sample. In the course of their research, they developed and manufactured a miniaturized device that works by surface plasmon resonance. Roughly, it measures the concentration of serum (or blood) methotrexate through gold nanoparticles on the surface of a receptacle. In “competing” with methotrexate to block the enzyme, the gold nanoparticles change the colour of the light detected by the instrument. And the colour of the light detected reflects the exact concentration of the drug in the blood sample.

The accuracy of the measurements taken by the new device were compared with those produced by equipment used at the Maisonneuve-Rosemont Hospital in Montreal. “Testing was conclusive: not only were the measurements as accurate, but our device took less than 60 seconds to produce results, compared to 30 minutes for current devices,” Masson said. Moreover, the comparative tests were performed by laboratory technicians who were not experienced with surface plasmon resonance and did not encounter major difficulties in operating the new equipment or obtaining the same conclusive results as Masson and his research team.

In addition to producing results in real time, the device designed by Masson is small and portable and requires little manipulation of samples. “In the near future, we can foresee the device in doctors’ offices or even at the bedside, where patients would receive individualized and optimal doses while minimizing the risk of complications,” Masson said. Another benefit, and a considerable one: “While traditional equipment requires an investment of around $100,000, the new mobile device would likely cost ten times less, around $10,000.”

For those who prefer to read the material in French here’s a link to ‘le 27 Octobre 2014 communiqué de nouvelles‘.

Here’s a prototype of the device,

Les nanoparticules d’or situées à la surface de la languette réceptrice modifient la couleur de la lumière détectée par l’instrument. La couleur captée reflète la concentration exacte du médicament contenu dans l’échantillon sanguin. Courtesy  Université de Montréal

Les nanoparticules d’or situées à la surface de la languette réceptrice modifient la couleur de la lumière détectée par l’instrument. La couleur captée reflète la concentration exacte du médicament contenu dans l’échantillon sanguin. Courtesy Université de Montréal

There is no indication as to when this might come to market, in English  or in French.