Tag Archives: University of California at San Diego

The insanity of Canadian science outreach (Science Odyssey, May 12 – 21, 2017 and Science RendezVous on May 13, 2017)

When was the last time you saw a six-year old or a twelve-year old attend a political candidates’ meeting or vote in an election? Sadly, most creative science outreach in Canada is aimed at children and teenagers in the misbegotten belief that adults don’t matter and ‘youth are the future’. There are three adult science outreach scenarios although they didn’t tend to be particularly creative. (1) Should scientists feel hard done by elected representatives, they reach out to other adults for support. (2) Should those other adults become disturbed by any scientific or technological ‘advance’ then scientific experts will arrive to explain why that’s wrong. (3) Should the science enterprise want money, then a call goes out (see my May 12, 2017 posting about the Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation gala and, yes, they were a bit creative about it).

I am oversimplifying the situation but not by much especially if one considers two upcoming national Canadian science events: Science Rendezvous which is a day-long (May 13, 2017) cross country science event taking place during while the Science Odyssey holds a 10-day (May 12 – 2017) cross country science event. The two groups arranged their events separately and then decided to coordinate their efforts. Science Odyssey is a rebranding of the Canada Science and Technology Week organized by the federal government for at least two decades and which was held (until 2016) in the fall of each year. Science Rendezvous (About page) was launched in Toronto in 2008 (University of Toronto, Ryerson University, York University and the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT)).

Regardless, both events are clearly aimed at children (and families).

I’m not suggesting that exciting science outreach for children should be curtailed. Let’s expand the efforts to9 include the adult and senior populations too.

In all the talk about Canada’s adult and ageing populations, perhaps we could approach it all more creatively. For example, there’s this (from an April 18, 2017 University of California at San Diego University news release (also on EurekAlert) by Inga Kiderra,

Philip Guo caught the coding bug in high school, at a fairly typical age for a Millennial. Less typical is that the UC San Diego cognitive scientist is now eager to share his passion for programming with a different demographic. And it’s not one you’re thinking of – it’s not elementary or middle school-aged kids. Guo wants to get adults age 60 and up.

In the first known study of older adults learning computer programming, Guo outlines his reasons: People are living and working longer. This is a growing segment of the population, and it’s severely underserved by learn-to-code intiatives, which usually target college students and younger. Guo wants to change that. He would like this in-demand skill to become more broadly accessible.

“Computers are everywhere, and digital literacy is becoming more and more important,” said Guo, assistant professor in the Department of Cognitive Science, who is also affiliated with UC San Diego’s Design Lab and its Department of Computer Science and Engineering. “At one time, 1,000 years ago, most people didn’t read or write – just some monks and select professionals could do it. I think in the future people will need to read and write in computer language as well. In the meantime, more could benefit from learning how to code.”

Guo’s study was recently awarded honorable mention by the world’s leading organization in human-computer interaction, ACM SIGCHI. Guo will present his findings at the group’s premier international conference, CHI, in May [2017].

When prior human-computer interaction studies have focused on older adults at all, Guo said, it has been mostly as consumers of new technology, of social networking sites like Facebook, say, or ride-sharing services. While a few have investigated the creation of content, like blogging or making digital music, these have involved the use of existing apps. None, to his knowledge, have looked at older adults as makers of entirely new software applications, so he set out to learn about their motivations, their frustrations and if these provided clues to design opportunities.

The Study

For his study, Guo surveyed users of pythontutor.com. A web-based education tool that Guo started in 2010, Python Tutor helps those learning to program visualize their work. Step by step, it displays what a computer is doing with each line of code that it runs. More than 3.5 million people in more than 180 countries have now used Python Tutor, including those around the world taking MOOCs (massive open online courses). Despite its legacy name, the tool helps people supplement their studies not only of the Python programming language but also Java, JavaScript, Ruby, C and C++, all of which are commonly used to teach programing. The users of Python Tutor represent a wide range of demographic groups.

Guo’s survey included 504 people between the ages of 60 and 85, from 52 different countries. Some were retired and semi-retired while others were still working.

What Guo discovered: Older adults are motivated to learn programming for a number of reasons. Some are age-related. They want to make up for missed opportunities during youth (22 percent) and keep their brains “challenged, fresh and sharp” as they age (19 percent). A few (5 percent) want to connect with younger family members.

Reasons not related to age include seeking continuing education for a current job (14 percent) and wanting to improve future job prospects (9 percent). A substantial group is in it just for personal enrichment: 19 percent to implement a specific hobby project idea, 15 percent for fun and entertainment, and 10 percent out of general interest.

Interestingly, 8 percent said they wanted to learn to teach others.

Topping the list of frustrations for older students of coding was bad pedagogy. It was mentioned by 21 percent of the respondents and ranged from the use of jargon to sudden spikes in difficulty levels. Lack of real-world relevance came up 6 percent of the time. A 74-year-old retired physician wrote: “Most [tutorials] are offered by people who must know how to program but don’t seem to have much training in teaching.”

Other frustrations included a perceived decline in cognitive abilities (12 percent) and no human contact with tutors and peers (10 percent).

The study’s limitations are tied in part to the instrument – self-reporting on an online survey – and in part to the survey respondents themselves. Most hailed from North America and other English-speaking nations. Most, 84 percent, identified themselves as male; this stat is consistent with other surveys of online learning, especially in math and science topics. There was a diverse array of occupations reported, but the majority of those surveyed were STEM professionals, managers and technicians. These learners, Guo said, likely represent “early adopters” and “the more technology-literate and self-motivated end of the general population.” He suggests future studies look both at in-person learning and at a broader swath of the public. But he expects the lessons learned from this group will generalize.

The Implications

Based on this first set of findings and using a learner-centered design approach, Guo proposes tailoring computer-programming tools and curricula specifically for older learners. He notes, for example, that many of his respondents seemed to take pride in their years and in their tech-savvy, so while it may be good to advertise products as targeting this age group, they should not appear patronizing. It might make sense to reframe lessons as brain-training games, like Lumosity, now popular among the older set.

Just as it’s key to understand who the learners are so is understanding where they have trouble. Repetition and frequent examples might be good to implement, as well as more in-person courses or video-chat-based workshops, Guo said, which may lead to improvements in the teaching of programming not just for older adults but across the board.

Context matters, too. Lessons are more compelling when they are put into domains that people personally care about. And Guo recommends coding curricula that enable older adults to tell their life stories or family histories, for example, or write software that organizes health information or assists care-givers.

Guo, who is currently working on studies to extend coding education to other underrepresented groups, advocates a computing future that is fully inclusive of all ages.

“There are a number of social implications when older adults have access to computer programming – not merely computer literacy,” he said. “These range from providing engaging mental stimulation to greater gainful employment from the comfort of one’s home.”

By moving the tech industry away from its current focus on youth, Guo argues, we all stand to gain. [emphasis mine]

Guo joined the UC San Diego cognitive science faculty in 2016 after two years as an assistant professor at the University of Rochester. He received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer science from MIT in 2006 and his Ph.D. from Stanford in 2012. Before becoming a professor, he built online learning tools as a software engineer at Google and a research scientist at edX. He also blogs, vlogs and podcasts at http://pgbovine.net/

When was the last time you heard about a ‘coding’ camp for adults and seniors in Canada? Also,, ask yourself if after you’d reached a certain age (40? 50? more? less?) you’d feel welcome at the Science Rendezvous events (without a child in tow), Science Odyssey events (without a child in tow), or the May 17, 2017 National Science and Innovation Gala in Ottawa (from my May 12, 2017 posting “It would seem the only person over the age of 30 who’s expected to attend is the CBC host, Heather Hiscox.”)?

Let’s open the door a bit wider, eh?

A new class of artificial retina

If I read the news release rightly (keep scrolling), this particular artificial retina does not require a device outside the body (e.g. specially developed eyeglasses) to capture an image to be transmitted to the implant. This new artificial retina captures the image directly.

The announcement of a new artificial retina is made in a March 13, 2017 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

A team of engineers at the University of California San Diego and La Jolla-based startup Nanovision Biosciences Inc. have developed the nanotechnology and wireless electronics for a new type of retinal prosthesis that brings research a step closer to restoring the ability of neurons in the retina to respond to light. The researchers demonstrated this response to light in a rat retina interfacing with a prototype of the device in vitro.

They detail their work in a recent issue of the Journal of Neural Engineering (“Towards high-resolution retinal prostheses with direct optical addressing and inductive telemetry”). The technology could help tens of millions of people worldwide suffering from neurodegenerative diseases that affect eyesight, including macular degeneration, retinitis pigmentosa and loss of vision due to diabetes

Caption: These are primary cortical neurons cultured on the surface of an array of optoelectronic nanowires. Here a neuron is pulling the nanowires, indicating the the cell is doing well on this material. Credit: UC San Diego

A March 13, 2017 University of California at San Diego (UCSD) news release (also on EurekAlert) by Ioana Patringenaru, which originated the news item, details the new approach,

Despite tremendous advances in the development of retinal prostheses over the past two decades, the performance of devices currently on the market to help the blind regain functional vision is still severely limited–well under the acuity threshold of 20/200 that defines legal blindness.

“We want to create a new class of devices with drastically improved capabilities to help people with impaired vision,” said Gabriel A. Silva, one of the senior authors of the work and professor in bioengineering and ophthalmology at UC San Diego. Silva also is one of the original founders of Nanovision.

The new prosthesis relies on two groundbreaking technologies. One consists of arrays of silicon nanowires that simultaneously sense light and electrically stimulate the retina accordingly. The nanowires give the prosthesis higher resolution than anything achieved by other devices–closer to the dense spacing of photoreceptors in the human retina. The other breakthrough is a wireless device that can transmit power and data to the nanowires over the same wireless link at record speed and energy efficiency.

One of the main differences between the researchers’ prototype and existing retinal prostheses is that the new system does not require a vision sensor outside of the eye [emphasis mine] to capture a visual scene and then transform it into alternating signals to sequentially stimulate retinal neurons. Instead, the silicon nanowires mimic the retina’s light-sensing cones and rods to directly stimulate retinal cells. Nanowires are bundled into a grid of electrodes, directly activated by light and powered by a single wireless electrical signal. This direct and local translation of incident light into electrical stimulation makes for a much simpler–and scalable–architecture for the prosthesis.

The power provided to the nanowires from the single wireless electrical signal gives the light-activated electrodes their high sensitivity while also controlling the timing of stimulation.

“To restore functional vision, it is critical that the neural interface matches the resolution and sensitivity of the human retina,” said Gert Cauwenberghs, a professor of bioengineering at the Jacobs School of Engineering at UC San Diego and the paper’s senior author.

Wireless telemetry system

Power is delivered wirelessly, from outside the body to the implant, through an inductive powering telemetry system developed by a team led by Cauwenberghs.

The device is highly energy efficient because it minimizes energy losses in wireless power and data transmission and in the stimulation process, recycling electrostatic energy circulating within the inductive resonant tank, and between capacitance on the electrodes and the resonant tank. Up to 90 percent of the energy transmitted is actually delivered and used for stimulation, which means less RF wireless power emitting radiation in the transmission, and less heating of the surrounding tissue from dissipated power.

The telemetry system is capable of transmitting both power and data over a single pair of inductive coils, one emitting from outside the body, and another on the receiving side in the eye. The link can send and receive one bit of data for every two cycles of the 13.56 megahertz RF signal; other two-coil systems need at least 5 cycles for every bit transmitted.

Proof-of-concept test

For proof-of-concept, the researchers inserted the wirelessly powered nanowire array beneath a transgenic rat retina with rhodopsin P23H knock-in retinal degeneration. The degenerated retina interfaced in vitro with a microelectrode array for recording extracellular neural action potentials (electrical “spikes” from neural activity).

The horizontal and bipolar neurons fired action potentials preferentially when the prosthesis was exposed to a combination of light and electrical potential–and were silent when either light or electrical bias was absent, confirming the light-activated and voltage-controlled responsivity of the nanowire array.

The wireless nanowire array device is the result of a collaboration between a multidisciplinary team led by Cauwenberghs, Silva and William R. Freeman, director of the Jacobs Retina Center at UC San Diego, UC San Diego electrical engineering professor Yu-Hwa Lo and Nanovision Biosciences.

A path to clinical translation

Freeman, Silva and Scott Thorogood, have co-founded La Jolla-based Nanovision Biosciences, a partner in this study, to further develop and translate the technology into clinical use, with the goal of restoring functional vision in patients with severe retinal degeneration. Animal tests with the device are in progress, with clinical trials following.

“We have made rapid progress with the development of the world’s first nanoengineered retinal prosthesis as a result of the unique partnership we have developed with the team at UC San Diego,” said Thorogood, who is the CEO of Nanovision Biosciences.

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

Towards high-resolution retinal prostheses with direct optical addressing and inductive telemetry by Sohmyung Ha, Massoud L Khraiche, Abraham Akinin, Yi Jing, Samir Damle, Yanjin Kuang, Sue Bauchner, Yu-Hwa Lo, William R Freeman, Gabriel A Silva.Journal of Neural Engineering, Volume 13, Number 5 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1088/1741-2560/13/5/056008

Published 16 August 2016 • © 2016 IOP Publishing Ltd

I’m not sure why they waited so long to make the announcement but, in any event, this paper is behind a paywall.

3D printed biomimetic blood vessel networks

An artificial blood vessel network that could lead the way to regenerating biologically-based blood vessel networks has been printed in 3D at the University of California at San Diego (UCSD) according to a March 2, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily,

Nanoengineers at the University of California San Diego have 3D printed a lifelike, functional blood vessel network that could pave the way toward artificial organs and regenerative therapies.

The new research, led by nanoengineering professor Shaochen Chen, addresses one of the biggest challenges in tissue engineering: creating lifelike tissues and organs with functioning vasculature — networks of blood vessels that can transport blood, nutrients, waste and other biological materials — and do so safely when implanted inside the body.

A March 2, 2017 UCSD news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, explains why this is an important development,

Researchers from other labs have used different 3D printing technologies to create artificial blood vessels. But existing technologies are slow, costly and mainly produce simple structures, such as a single blood vessel — a tube, basically. These blood vessels also are not capable of integrating with the body’s own vascular system.

“Almost all tissues and organs need blood vessels to survive and work properly. This is a big bottleneck in making organ transplants, which are in high demand but in short supply,” said Chen, who leads the Nanobiomaterials, Bioprinting, and Tissue Engineering Lab at UC San Diego. “3D bioprinting organs can help bridge this gap, and our lab has taken a big step toward that goal.”

Chen’s lab has 3D printed a vasculature network that can safely integrate with the body’s own network to circulate blood. These blood vessels branch out into many series of smaller vessels, similar to the blood vessel structures found in the body. The work was published in Biomaterials.

Chen’s team developed an innovative bioprinting technology, using their own homemade 3D printers, to rapidly produce intricate 3D microstructures that mimic the sophisticated designs and functions of biological tissues. Chen’s lab has used this technology in the past to create liver tissue and microscopic fish that can swim in the body to detect and remove toxins.

Researchers first create a 3D model of the biological structure on a computer. The computer then transfers 2D snapshots of the model to millions of microscopic-sized mirrors, which are each digitally controlled to project patterns of UV light in the form of these snapshots. The UV patterns are shined onto a solution containing live cells and light-sensitive polymers that solidify upon exposure to UV light. The structure is rapidly printed one layer at a time, in a continuous fashion, creating a 3D solid polymer scaffold encapsulating live cells that will grow and become biological tissue.

“We can directly print detailed microvasculature structures in extremely high resolution. Other 3D printing technologies produce the equivalent of ‘pixelated’ structures in comparison and usually require sacrificial materials and additional steps to create the vessels,” said Wei Zhu, a postdoctoral scholar in Chen’s lab and a lead researcher on the project.

And this entire process takes just a few seconds — a vast improvement over competing bioprinting methods, which normally take hours just to print simple structures. The process also uses materials that are inexpensive and biocompatible.

Chen’s team used medical imaging to create a digital pattern of a blood vessel network found in the body. Using their technology, they printed a structure containing endothelial cells, which are cells that form the inner lining of blood vessels.

The entire structure fits onto a small area measuring 4 millimeters × 5 millimeters, 600 micrometers thick (as thick as a stack containing 12 strands of human hair).

Researchers cultured several structures in vitro for one day, then grafted the resulting tissues into skin wounds of mice. After two weeks, the researchers examined the implants and found that they had successfully grown into and merged with the host blood vessel network, allowing blood to circulate normally.

Chen noted that the implanted blood vessels are not yet capable of other functions, such as transporting nutrients and waste. “We still have a lot of work to do to improve these materials. This is a promising step toward the future of tissue regeneration and repair,” he said.

Moving forward, Chen and his team are working on building patient-specific tissues using human induced pluripotent stem cells, which would prevent transplants from being attacked by a patient’s immune system. And since these cells are derived from a patient’s skin cells, researchers won’t need to extract any cells from inside the body to build new tissue. The team’s ultimate goal is to move their work to clinical trials. “It will take at least several years before we reach that goal,” Chen said.

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

Direct 3D bioprinting of prevascularized tissue constructs with complex microarchitecture by Wei Zhu, Xin Qu, Jie Zhu, Xuanyi Ma, Sherrina Patel, Justin Liu, Pengrui Wang, Cheuk Sun Edwin Lai, Maling Gou, Yang Xu, Kang Zhang, Shaochen Chen. Biomaterials 124 (April 2017) 106-15 http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.biomaterials.2017.01.042

This paper is behind a paywall.

There is also an open access copy here on the university website but I cannot confirm that it is identical to the version in the journal.

Hairy strength could lead to new body armour

A Jan. 18, 2017 news item on Nanowerk announces research into hair strength from the University of California at San Diego (UCSD or UC San Diego),

In a new study, researchers at the University of California San Diego investigate why hair is incredibly strong and resistant to breaking. The findings could lead to the development of new materials for body armor and help cosmetic manufacturers create better hair care products.

Hair has a strength to weight ratio comparable to steel. It can be stretched up to one and a half times its original length before breaking. “We wanted to understand the mechanism behind this extraordinary property,” said Yang (Daniel) Yu, a nanoengineering Ph.D. student at UC San Diego and the first author of the study.

A Jan. 18 (?), 2017 UCSD news release, which originated the news item, provides more information,

“Nature creates a variety of interesting materials and architectures in very ingenious ways. We’re interested in understanding the correlation between the structure and the properties of biological materials to develop synthetic materials and designs — based on nature — that have better performance than existing ones,” said Marc Meyers, a professor of mechanical engineering at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering and the lead author of the study.

In a study published online in Dec. in the journal Materials Science and Engineering C, researchers examined at the nanoscale level how a strand of human hair behaves when it is deformed, or stretched. The team found that hair behaves differently depending on how fast or slow it is stretched. The faster hair is stretched, the stronger it is. “Think of a highly viscous substance like honey,” Meyers explained. “If you deform it fast it becomes stiff, but if you deform it slowly it readily pours.”

Hair consists of two main parts — the cortex, which is made up of parallel fibrils, and the matrix, which has an amorphous (random) structure. The matrix is sensitive to the speed at which hair is deformed, while the cortex is not. The combination of these two components, Yu explained, is what gives hair the ability to withstand high stress and strain.

And as hair is stretched, its structure changes in a particular way. At the nanoscale, the cortex fibrils in hair are each made up of thousands of coiled spiral-shaped chains of molecules called alpha helix chains. As hair is deformed, the alpha helix chains uncoil and become pleated sheet structures known as beta sheets. This structural change allows hair to handle a large amount deformation without breaking.

This structural transformation is partially reversible. When hair is stretched under a small amount of strain, it can recover its original shape. Stretch it further, the structural transformation becomes irreversible. “This is the first time evidence for this transformation has been discovered,” Yu said.

“Hair is such a common material with many fascinating properties,” said Bin Wang, a UC San Diego PhD alumna from the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and co-author on the paper. Wang is now at the Shenzhen Institutes of Advanced Technology in China continuing research on hair.

The team also conducted stretching tests on hair at different humidity levels and temperatures. At higher humidity levels, hair can withstand up to 70 to 80 percent deformation before breaking (dry hair can undergo up to 50 percent deformation). Water essentially “softens” hair — it enters the matrix and breaks the sulfur bonds connecting the filaments inside a strand of hair. Researchers also found that hair starts to undergo permanent damage at 60 degrees Celsius (140 degrees Fahrenheit). Beyond this temperature, hair breaks faster at lower stress and strain.

“Since I was a child I always wondered why hair is so strong. Now I know why,” said Wen Yang, a former postdoctoral researcher in Meyers’ research group and co-author on the paper.

The team is currently conducting further studies on the effects of water on the properties of human hair. Moving forward, the team is investigating the detailed mechanism of how washing hair causes it to return to its original shape.

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

Structure and mechanical behavior of human hair by Yang Yua, Wen Yang, Bin Wang, Marc André Meyers. Materials Science and Engineering: C Volume 73, 1 April 2017, Pages 152–163    http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.msec.2016.12.008

This paper is behind a paywall.

Using acoustic waves to move fluids at the nanoscale

A Nov. 14, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily describes research that could lead to applications useful for ‘lab-on-a-chip’ operations,

A team of mechanical engineers at the University of California San Diego [UCSD] has successfully used acoustic waves to move fluids through small channels at the nanoscale. The breakthrough is a first step toward the manufacturing of small, portable devices that could be used for drug discovery and microrobotics applications. The devices could be integrated in a lab on a chip to sort cells, move liquids, manipulate particles and sense other biological components. For example, it could be used to filter a wide range of particles, such as bacteria, to conduct rapid diagnosis.

A Nov. 14, 2016 UCSD news release (also on EurrekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more information,

The researchers detail their findings in the Nov. 14 issue of Advanced Functional Materials. This is the first time that surface acoustic waves have been used at the nanoscale.

The field of nanofluidics has long struggled with moving fluids within channels that are 1000 times smaller than the width of a hair, said James Friend, a professor and materials science expert at the Jacobs School of Engineering at UC San Diego. Current methods require bulky and expensive equipment as well as high temperatures. Moving fluid out of a channel that’s just a few nanometers high requires pressures of 1 megaPascal, or the equivalent of 10 atmospheres.

Researchers led by Friend had tried to use acoustic waves to move the fluids along at the nano scale for several years. They also wanted to do this with a device that could be manufactured at room temperature.

After a year of experimenting, post-doctoral researcher Morteza Miansari, now at Stanford, was able to build a device made of lithium niobate with nanoscale channels where fluids can be moved by surface acoustic waves. This was made possible by a new method Miansari developed to bond the material to itself at room temperature.  The fabrication method can be easily scaled up, which would lower manufacturing costs. Building one device would cost $1000 but building 100,000 would drive the price down to $1 each.

The device is compatible with biological materials, cells and molecules.

Researchers used acoustic waves with a frequency of 20 megaHertz to manipulate fluids, droplets and particles in nanoslits that are 50 to 250 nanometers tall. To fill the channels, researchers applied the acoustic waves in the same direction as the fluid moving into the channels. To drain the channels, the sound waves were applied in the opposite direction.

By changing the height of the channels, the device could be used to filter a wide range of particles, down to large biomolecules such as siRNA, which would not fit in the slits. Essentially, the acoustic waves would drive fluids containing the particles into these channels. But while the fluid would go through, the particles would be left behind and form a dry mass. This could be used for rapid diagnosis in the field.

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

Acoustic Nanofluidics via Room-Temperature Lithium Niobate Bonding: A Platform for Actuation and Manipulation of Nanoconfined Fluids and Particles by Morteza Miansari and James R. Friend. Advanced Functional Materials DOI: 10.1002/adfm.201602425 Version of Record online: 20 SEP 2016
© 2016 WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

This paper is behind a paywall.

They do have an animation sequence illustrating the work but it could be considered suggestive and is, weirdly, silent,

 

 

X-ray of a butterfly’s wing reveals structural colour secrets

Over millions of years, butterflies evolved sophisticated cellular mechanisms to produce brightly colored wings for mating and camouflage. iStock photo by Borut Trdina

Over millions of years, butterflies evolved sophisticated cellular mechanisms to produce brightly colored wings for mating and camouflage. iStock photo by Borut Trdina

A June 13, 2016 news item on Nanowerk announced a discovery about the physics of colour,

A team of physicists that visualized the internal nanostructure of an intact butterfly wing has discovered two physical attributes that make those structures so bright and colorful.

“Over millions of years, butterflies have evolved sophisticated cellular mechanisms to grow brightly colored structures, normally for the purpose of camouflage as well as mating,” says Oleg Shpyrko, an associate professor of physics at UC San Diego, who headed the research effort. “It’s been known for a century that the wings of these beautiful creatures contain what are called photonic crystals, which can reflect light of only a particular color.”

But exactly how these complex optical structures are assembled in a way that make them so bright and colorful remained a mystery.

A June 10, 2016 University of California at San Diego news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes how the mystery was solved,

In an effort to answer that question, Shpyrko and Andrej Singer, a postdoctoral researcher in his laboratory, went to the Advanced Photon Source at the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, which produces coherent x-rays very much like an optical laser

By combining these laser-like x-rays with an advanced imaging technique called “ptychography,” the UC San Diego physicists, in collaboration with physicists at Yale University and the Argonne National Laboratory, developed a new microscopy method to visualize the internal nanostructure of the tiny “scales” that make up the butterfly wing without the need to cut them apart.

The researchers report in the current issue of the journal Science Advances that their examination of the scales of the Emperor of India butterfly, Teinopalpus imperialis, revealed that these tiny wing structures consist of “highly oriented” photonic crystals.

“This explains why the scales appear to have a single color,” says Singer, the first author of the paper. “We also found through careful study of the high-resolution micrographs tiny crystal irregularities that may enhance light-scattering properties, making the butterfly wings appear brighter.”

These crystal dislocations or defects occur, the researchers say, when an otherwise perfectly periodic crystal lattice slips by one row of atoms. “Defects may have a negative connotation, but they are actually very useful in improving materials,” explains Singer. “For example, blacksmiths have learned over centuries how to purposefully induce defects into metals to make them stronger. ‘Defect engineering’ is also a focus for many research teams and companies working in the semiconductor field. In photonic crystals, defects can enhance light-scattering properties through an effect called light localization.”

“In the evolution of butterfly wings,” he adds, “it appears nature learned how to engineer these defects on purpose.”

The researchers have made this image illustrating their work available,

Scales from the wings of the Emperor of India butterfly consist of “highly oriented” photonic crystals. Photos by Andrej Singer, UC San Diego

Scales from the wings of the Emperor of India butterfly consist of “highly oriented” photonic crystals. Photos by Andrej Singer, UC San Diego

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

Domain morphology, boundaries, and topological defects in biophotonic gyroid nanostructures of butterfly wing scales by Andrej Singer, Leandra Boucheron, Sebastian H. Dietze, Katharine E. Jensen, David Vine, Ian McNulty, Eric R. Dufresne, Richard O. Prum, Simon G. J. Mochrie, and Oleg G. Shpyrko. Science Advances  10 Jun 2016: Vol. 2, no. 6, e1600149 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1600149

This paper is open access.

How tarantulas get blue

Cobalt Blue Tarantula [downloaded from http://www.tarantulaguide.com/tarantula-pictures/cobalt-blue-tarantula-4/]

Cobalt Blue Tarantula [downloaded from http://www.tarantulaguide.com/tarantula-pictures/cobalt-blue-tarantula-4/]

That’s a stunning shade of blue on the tarantula and now scientists can explain why these and other ‘spiders’ are sometimes blue, from a Nov. 30, 2015 news item on ScienceDaily,

Scientists recently discovered that tiny, multilayer nanostructures inside a tarantula’s hair are responsible for its vibrant color. The science behind how these hair-raising spiders developed their blue hue may lead to new ways to improve computer or TV screens using biomimicry.

A Nov. 30, 2015 University of California at San Diego news release by Annie Reisewitz, which originated the news item, explains more,

Researchers from Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego and University of Akron found that many species of tarantulas have independently evolved the ability to grow blue hair using nanostructures in their exoskeletons, rather than pigments. The study, published in the Nov. 27 issue of Science Advances, is the first to show that individual species evolved separately to make the same shade of a non-iridescent color, one that doesn’t change when viewed at different angles.

Since tarantulas’ blue color is not iridescent, the researchers suggest that the same process can be applied to make pigment replacements that never fade and help reduce glare on wide-angle viewing systems in phones, televisions, and other devices.

“There is strikingly little variety in the shade of blue produced by different species of tarantulas,” said Dimitri Deheyn, a Scripps Oceanography researcher studying marine and terrestrial biomimicry and coauthor of the study. “We see that different types of nanostructures evolved to produce the same ‘blue’ across distant branches of the tarantula family tree in a way that uniquely illustrates natural selection through convergent evolution.”

Unlike butterflies and birds that use nanostructures to produce vibrant colors to attract the attention of females during display courtship, tarantulas have poor vision and likely evolved this trait for a different reason. While the researchers still don’t understand the benefits tarantulas receive from being blue, they are now investigating how to reproduce the tarantula nanostructures in the laboratory.

The tarantula study is just one example of the biomimicry research being conducted in the Deheyn lab at Scripps Oceanography. In a cover article in the Nov. 10 of Chemistry of Materials, Deheyn and colleagues published new findings on the nanostructure of ragweed pollen, which shows interesting optical properties and has possible biomimicry applications. By transforming the pollen into a magnetic material with a specialized coating to give it more or less reflectance, the particle could adhere in a similar way that pollen does in nature while being able to adjust its visibility. The researchers suggest this design could be applied to create a new type of tagging or tracking technology.

Using a high-powered microscope, known as a hyperspectral imaging system, Deheyn is able to map a species’ color field pixel by pixel, which correlates to the shape and geometry of the nanostructures and gives them their unique color.

“This unique technology allows us to associate structure with optical property,” said Deheyn. “Our inspiration is to learn about how nature evolves unique traits that we could mimic to benefit future technologies.”

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

Blue reflectance in tarantulas is evolutionarily conserved despite nanostructural diversity by Bor-Kai Hsiung, Dimitri D. Deheyn, Matthew D. Shawkey, and Todd A. Blackledge. Science Advances  27 Nov 2015: Vol. 1, no. 10, e1500709 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1500709

This paper appears to be open access.

Clearing nanoparticles from blood using electric fields

With all the excitement about using nanoparticles to deliver medication (drugs), there hasn’t been much mention of removing these nanoparticles once they’ve served their purpose. Apparently, there is a new technique which makes removal much easier.

 Caption An artist's representation of the nanoparticle removal chip developed by researchers in Professor Michael Heller's lab at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering. An oscillating electric field (purple arcs) separates drug-delivery nanoparticles (yellow spheres) from blood (red spheres) and pulls them towards rings surrounding the chip's electrodes. The image is featured as the inside cover of the Oct. 14 issue of the journal Small. Credit: Stuart Ibsen and Steven Ibsen.

Caption: An artist’s representation of the nanoparticle removal chip developed by researchers in Professor Michael Heller’s lab at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering. An oscillating electric field (purple arcs) separates drug-delivery nanoparticles (yellow spheres) from blood (red spheres) and pulls them towards rings surrounding the chip’s electrodes. The image is featured as the inside cover of the Oct. 14 issue of the journal Small. Credit: Stuart Ibsen and Steven Ibsen.

Engineers at the University of California at San Diego (UCSD) provide a description of the new technology and the problems with current techniques for removing nanoparticles in a Nov. 20, 2015 UCSD news release (also on EurekAlert but dated Nov. 23, 2015),

Engineers at the University of California, San Diego developed a new technology that uses an oscillating electric field to easily and quickly isolate drug-delivery nanoparticles from blood. The technology could serve as a general tool to separate and recover nanoparticles from other complex fluids for medical, environmental, and industrial applications.

Nanoparticles, which are generally one thousand times smaller than the width of a human hair, are difficult to separate from plasma, the liquid component of blood, due to their small size and low density. Traditional methods to remove nanoparticles from plasma samples typically involve diluting the plasma, adding a high concentration sugar solution to the plasma and spinning it in a centrifuge, or attaching a targeting agent to the surface of the nanoparticles. These methods either alter the normal behavior of the nanoparticles or cannot be applied to some of the most common nanoparticle types.

“This is the first example of isolating a wide range of nanoparticles out of plasma with a minimum amount of manipulation,” said Stuart Ibsen, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of NanoEngineering at UC San Diego and first author of the study published October in the journal Small. “We’ve designed a very versatile technique that can be used to recover nanoparticles in a lot of different processes.”

This new nanoparticle separation technology will enable researchers — particularly those who design and study drug-delivery nanoparticles for disease therapies — to better monitor what happens to nanoparticles circulating in a patient’s bloodstream. One of the questions that researchers face is how blood proteins bind to the surfaces of drug-delivery nanoparticles and make them less effective. Researchers could also use this technology in the clinic to determine if the blood chemistry of a particular patient is compatible with the surfaces of certain drug-delivery nanoparticles.

“We were interested in a fast and easy way to take these nanoparticles out of plasma so we could find out what’s going on at their surfaces and redesign them to work more effectively in blood,” said Michael Heller, a nanoengineering professor at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering and senior author of the study.

The device used to isolate the drug-delivery nanoparticles was a dime-sized electric chip manufactured by La Jolla-based Biological Dynamics, which licensed the original technology from UC San Diego. The chip contains hundreds of tiny electrodes that generate a rapidly oscillating electric field that selectively pulls the nanoparticles out of a plasma sample. Researchers inserted a drop of plasma spiked with nanoparticles into the electric chip and demonstrated nanoparticle recovery within 7 minutes. The technology worked on different types of drug-delivery nanoparticles that are typically studied in various labs.

The breakthrough in the technology relies on designing a chip that can work in the high salt concentration of blood plasma. The chip’s ability to pull the nanoparticles out of plasma is based on differences in the material properties between the nanoparticles and plasma components. When the chip’s electrodes apply an oscillating electric field, the positive and negative charges inside the nanoparticles reorient themselves at a different speed than the charges in the surrounding plasma. This momentary imbalance in the charges creates an attractive force between the nanoparticles and the electrodes. As the electric field oscillates, the nanoparticles are continually pulled towards the electrodes, leaving the rest of the plasma behind. Also, the electric field is designed to oscillate at just the right frequency: 15,000 times per second.

“It’s amazing that this method works without any modifications to the plasma samples or to the nanoparticles,” said Ibsen.

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

Recovery of Drug Delivery Nanoparticles from Human Plasma Using an Electrokinetic Platform Technology by Stuart Ibsen, Avery Sonnenberg, Carolyn Schutt, Rajesh Mukthavaram, Yasan Yeh, Inanc Ortac, Sareh Manouchehri, Santosh Kesari, Sadik Esener, and Michael J. Heller. Small Volume 11, Issue 38, pages 5088–5096, October 14, 2015 DOI: 10.1002/smll.201500892 Article first published online: 14 AUG 2015

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

That’s quite a gap between the publication date and promotion of the study. Presumably this is the second time around for the promotion efforts. In any event, the paper is behind a paywall.

Cleaning up carbon dioxide pollution in the oceans and elsewhere

I have a mini roundup of items (3) concerning nanotechnology and environmental applications with a special focus on carbon materials.

Carbon-capturing motors

First up, there’s a Sept. 23, 2015 news item on ScienceDaily which describes work with tiny carbon-capturing motors,

Machines that are much smaller than the width of a human hair could one day help clean up carbon dioxide pollution in the oceans. Nanoengineers at the University of California, San Diego have designed enzyme-functionalized micromotors that rapidly zoom around in water, remove carbon dioxide and convert it into a usable solid form.

The proof of concept study represents a promising route to mitigate the buildup of carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas in the environment, said researchers. …

A Sept 22, 2015 University of California at San Diego (UCSD) news release by Liezel Labios, which originated the news release, provides more details about the scientists’ hopes and the technology,

“We’re excited about the possibility of using these micromotors to combat ocean acidification and global warming,” said Virendra V. Singh, a postdoctoral scientist in Wang’s [nanoengineering professor and chair Joseph Wang] research group and a co-first author of this study.

In their experiments, nanoengineers demonstrated that the micromotors rapidly decarbonated water solutions that were saturated with carbon dioxide. Within five minutes, the micromotors removed 90 percent of the carbon dioxide from a solution of deionized water. The micromotors were just as effective in a sea water solution and removed 88 percent of the carbon dioxide in the same timeframe.

“In the future, we could potentially use these micromotors as part of a water treatment system, like a water decarbonation plant,” said Kevin Kaufmann, an undergraduate researcher in Wang’s lab and a co-author of the study.

The micromotors are essentially six-micrometer-long tubes that help rapidly convert carbon dioxide into calcium carbonate, a solid mineral found in eggshells, the shells of various marine organisms, calcium supplements and cement. The micromotors have an outer polymer surface that holds the enzyme carbonic anhydrase, which speeds up the reaction between carbon dioxide and water to form bicarbonate. Calcium chloride, which is added to the water solutions, helps convert bicarbonate to calcium carbonate.

The fast and continuous motion of the micromotors in solution makes the micromotors extremely efficient at removing carbon dioxide from water, said researchers. The team explained that the micromotors’ autonomous movement induces efficient solution mixing, leading to faster carbon dioxide conversion. To fuel the micromotors in water, researchers added hydrogen peroxide, which reacts with the inner platinum surface of the micromotors to generate a stream of oxygen gas bubbles that propel the micromotors around. When released in water solutions containing as little as two to four percent hydrogen peroxide, the micromotors reached speeds of more than 100 micrometers per second.

However, the use of hydrogen peroxide as the micromotor fuel is a drawback because it is an extra additive and requires the use of expensive platinum materials to build the micromotors. As a next step, researchers are planning to make carbon-capturing micromotors that can be propelled by water.

“If the micromotors can use the environment as fuel, they will be more scalable, environmentally friendly and less expensive,” said Kaufmann.

The researchers have provided an image which illustrates the carbon-capturing motors in action,

Nanoengineers have invented tiny tube-shaped micromotors that zoom around in water and efficiently remove carbon dioxide. The surfaces of the micromotors are functionalized with the enzyme carbonic anhydrase, which enables the motors to help rapidly convert carbon dioxide to calcium carbonate. Image credit: Laboratory for Nanobioelectronics, UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering.

Nanoengineers have invented tiny tube-shaped micromotors that zoom around in water and efficiently remove carbon dioxide. The surfaces of the micromotors are functionalized with the enzyme carbonic anhydrase, which enables the motors to help rapidly convert carbon dioxide to calcium carbonate. Image credit: Laboratory for Nanobioelectronics, UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering.

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

Micromotor-Based Biomimetic Carbon Dioxide Sequestration: Towards Mobile Microscrubbers by Murat Uygun, Virendra V. Singh, Kevin Kaufmann, Deniz A. Uygun, Severina D. S. de Oliveira, and oseph Wang. Angewandte Chemie DOI: 10.1002/ange.201505155 Article first published online: 4 SEP 2015

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

This article is behind a paywall.

Carbon nanotubes for carbon dioxide capture (carbon capture)

In a Sept. 22, 2015 posting by Dexter Johnson on his Nanoclast blog (located on the IEEE [Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers] website) describes research where carbon nanotubes are being used for carbon capture,

Now researchers at Technische Universität Darmstadt in Germany and the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur have found that they can tailor the gas adsorption properties of vertically aligned carbon nanotubes (VACNTs) by altering their thickness, height, and the distance between them.

“These parameters are fundamental for ‘tuning’ the hierarchical pore structure of the VACNTs,” explained Mahshid Rahimi and Deepu Babu, doctoral students at the Technische Universität Darmstadt who were the paper’s lead authors, in a press release. “This hierarchy effect is a crucial factor for getting high-adsorption capacities as well as mass transport into the nanostructure. Surprisingly, from theory and by experiment, we found that the distance between nanotubes plays a much larger role in gas adsorption than the tube diameter does.”

Dexter provides a good and brief summary of the research.

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

Double-walled carbon nanotube array for CO2 and SO2 adsorption by Mahshid Rahimi, Deepu J. Babu, Jayant K. Singh, Yong-Biao Yang, Jörg J. Schneider, and Florian Müller-Plathe. J. Chem. Phys. 143, 124701 (2015); http://dx.doi.org/10.1063/1.4929609

This paper is open access.

The market for nanotechnology-enabled environmental applications

Coincident with stumbling across these two possible capture solutions, I found this Sept. 23, 2015 BCC Research news release,

A groundswell of global support for developing nanotechnology as a pollution remediation technique will continue for the foreseeable future. BCC Research reveals in its new report that this key driver, along with increasing worldwide concerns over removing pollutants and developing alternative energy sources, will drive growth in the nanotechnology environmental applications market.

The global nanotechnology market in environmental applications is expected to reach $25.7 billion by 2015 and $41.8 billion by 2020, conforming to a five-year (2015-2020) compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 10.2%. Air remediation as a segment will reach $10.2 billion and $16.7 billion in 2015 and 2020, respectively, reflecting a five-year CAGR of 10.3%. Water remediation as a segment will grow at a five-year CAGR of 12.4% to reach $10.6 billion in 2020.

As nanoparticles push the limits and capabilities of technology, new and better techniques for pollution control are emerging. Presently, nanotechnology’s greatest potential lies in air pollution remediation.

“Nano filters could be applied to automobile tailpipes and factory smokestacks to separate out contaminants and prevent them from entering the atmosphere. In addition, nano sensors have been developed to sense toxic gas leaks at extremely low concentrations,” says BCC research analyst Aneesh Kumar. “Overall, there is a multitude of promising environmental applications for nanotechnology, with the main focus area on energy and water technologies.”

You can find links to the report, TOC (table of contents), and report overview on the BCC Research Nanotechnology in Environmental Applications: The Global Market report webpage.

Monitoring your saliva via mouth guard and smart phone

I first came across the notion that saliva instead of blood and urine could be used to assess and monitor health in a presentation abstract for the 2004 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting held in Seattle, Washington (as per my Feb. 15, 2011 posting). There have been a few ‘saliva’ health monitoring projects mentioned here over the years but this proof-of-concept version seems like it has the potential to get to the marketplace. An August 31, 2015 news item on Nanowerk features a ‘saliva’ health monitoring project from the University of California at San Diego (UCSD),

Engineers at the University of California, San Diego, have developed a mouth guard that can monitor health markers, such as lactate, cortisol and uric acid, in saliva and transmit the information wirelessly to a smart phone, laptop or tablet.
The technology, which is at a proof-of-concept stage, could be used to monitor patients continuously without invasive procedures, as well as to monitor athletes’ performance or stress levels in soldiers and pilots. In this study, engineers focused on uric acid, which is a marker related to diabetes and to gout. Currently, the only way to monitor the levels of uric acid in a patient is to draw blood.

An August 31, 2015 UCSD news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the research and the mouth guard in more detail,

In this study, researchers showed that the mouth guard sensor could offer an easy and reliable way to monitor uric acid levels. The mouth guard has been tested with human saliva but hasn’t been tested in a person’s mouth.

Researchers collected saliva samples from healthy volunteers and spread them on the sensor, which produced readings in a normal range. Next, they collected saliva from a patient who suffers from hyperuricemia, a condition characterized by an excess of uric acid in the blood. The sensor detected more than four times as much uric acid in the patient’s saliva than in the healthy volunteers.

The patient also took Allopurinol, which had been prescribed by a physician to treat their condition. Researchers were able to document a drop in the levels of uric acid over four or five days as the medication took effect. In the past, the patient would have needed blood draws to monitor levels and relied instead on symptoms to start and stop his medication.

Fabrication and design

Wang’s team created a screen-printed sensor using silver, Prussian blue ink and uricase, an enzyme that reacts with uric acid. Because saliva is extremely complex and contains many different biomarkers, researchers needed to make sure that the sensors only reacted with the uric acid. Nanoengineers set up the chemical equivalent of a two-step authentication system. The first step is a series of chemical keyholes, which ensures that only the smallest biochemicals get inside the sensor. The second step is a layer of uricase trapped in polymers, which reacts selectively with uric acid. The reaction between acid and enzyme generates hydrogen peroxide, which is detected by the Prussian blue ink.  That information is then transmitted to an electronic board as electrical signals via metallic strips that are part of the sensor.

The electronic board, developed by Mercier’s team, uses small chips that sense the output of the sensors, digitizes this output and then wirelessly transmits data to a smart phone, tablet or laptop. The entire electronic board occupies an area slightly larger than a U.S. penny.

Next steps

The next step is to embed all the electronics inside the mouth guard so that it can actually be worn. Researchers also will have to test the materials used for the sensors and electronics to make sure that they are indeed completely biocompatible. The next iteration of the mouth guard is about a year out, Mercier estimates.

“All the components are there,” he said. “It’s just a matter of refining the device and working on its stability.”

Wang and Mercier lead the Center for Wearable Sensors at UC San Diego, which has made a series of breakthroughs in the field, including temporary tattoos that monitor glucose, ultra-miniaturized energy-processing chips and pens filled with high-tech inks for Do It Yourself chemical sensors.

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

Wearable salivary uric acid mouthguard biosensor with integrated wireless electronics by Jayoung Kim, Somayeh Imani, William R. de Araujo, Julian Warchall, Gabriela Valdés-Ramírez, Thiago R.L.C. Paixão, Patrick P. Mercier, & Joseph Wang. Biosensors and Bioelectronics Volume 74, 15 December 2015, Pages 1061–1068 doi:10.1016/j.bios.2015.07.039

This paper is behind a paywall.

Here’s an image of UCSD’s proposed mouth guard,

The mouth guard sensor offers an easy and reliable way to monitor uric acid levels in human saliva. Credit: Jacobs School of Engineering, UC San Diego

The mouth guard sensor offers an easy and reliable way to monitor uric acid levels in human saliva. Credit: Jacobs School of Engineering, UC San Diego