Tag Archives: University of Chicago

New ways to think about water

This post features two items about water both of which suggest we should reconsider our ideas about it. This first item concerns hydrogen bonds and coordinated vibrations. From a July 16 2014 news item on Azonano,

Using a newly developed, ultrafast femtosecond infrared light source, chemists at the University of Chicago have been able to directly visualize the coordinated vibrations between hydrogen-bonded molecules — the first time this sort of chemical interaction, which is found in nature everywhere at the molecular level, has been directly visualized. They describe their experimental techniques and observations in The Journal of Chemical Physics, from AIP [American Institute of Physics] Publishing.

“These two-dimensional infrared spectroscopy techniques provide a new avenue to directly visualize both hydrogen bond partners,” said Andrei Tokmakoff, the lab’s primary investigator. “They have the spectral content and bandwidth to really interrogate huge parts of the vibrational spectrum of molecules. It’s opened up the ability to look at how very different types of vibrations on different molecules interact with one another.”

A July 15, 2014 AIP news release by John Arnst (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail,

Tokmakoff and his colleagues sought to use two-dimensional infrared spectroscopy to directly characterize structural parameters such as intermolecular distances and hydrogen-bonding configurations, as this information can be encoded in intermolecular cross-peaks that spectroscopy detects between solute-solvent vibrations.

“You pluck on the bonds of one molecule and watch how it influences the other,” Tokmakoff said. “In our experiment, you’re basically plucking on both because they’re so strongly bound.”

Hydrogen bonds are typically perceived as the attractive force between the slightly negative and slightly positive ends of neutrally-charged molecules, such as water. While water stands apart with its unique polar properties, hydrogen bonds can form between a wide range of molecules containing electronegative atoms and range from weakly polar to nearly covalent in strength. Hydrogen bonding plays a key role in the action of large, biologically-relevant molecules and is often an important element in the discovery of new pharmaceuticals.

For their initial visualizations, Tokmakoff’s group used N-methylacetamide, a molecule called a peptide that forms medium-strength hydrogen-bonded dimers in organic solution due to its polar nitrogen-hydrogen and carbon-oxygen tails. By using a targeted three-pulse sequence of mid-infrared light and apparatus described in their article, Tokmakoff’s group was able to render the vibrational patterns of the two peptide units.

“All of the internal vibrations of hydrogen bonded molecules that we look at become intertwined, inextricably; you can’t think of them as just a simple sum of two parts,” Tokmakoff said.

More research is being planned while Tokmakoff suggests that water must be rethought from an atomistic perspective (from the news release),

Future work in Tokmakoff’s group involves visualizing the dynamics and structure of water around biological molecules such as proteins and DNA.

“You can’t just think of the water as sort of an amorphous solvent, you really have to at least on some level think of it atomistically and treat it that way,” Tokmakoff said. “And if you believe that, it has huge consequences all over the place, particularly in biology, where so much computational biology ignores the fact that water has real structure and real quantum mechanical properties of its own.”

The researchers have provided an illustration of hydrogen’s vibrating bonds,

The hydrogen-bonding interaction causes the atoms on each individual N-methylacetamide molecule to vibrate in unison. CREDIT: L. De Marco/UChicago

The hydrogen-bonding interaction causes the atoms on each individual N-methylacetamide molecule to vibrate in unison.
CREDIT: L. De Marco/UChicago

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

Direct observation of intermolecular interactions mediated by hydrogen bonding by Luigi De Marco, Martin Thämer, Mike Reppert, and Andrei Tokmakoff. J. Chem. Phys. 141, 034502 (2014); http://dx.doi.org/10.1063/1.4885145

This paper is open access. (I was able to view the entire HTML version.)

A July 15, 2014 University of Southampton press release on EurekAlert offers another surprise about water,

University of Southampton researchers have found that rainwater can penetrate below the Earth’s fractured upper crust, which could have major implications for our understanding of earthquakes and the generation of valuable mineral deposits.

The reason that water’s ability to penetrate below the earth’s upper crust is a surprise (from the news release),

It had been thought that surface water could not penetrate the ductile crust – where temperatures of more than 300°C and high pressures cause rocks to flex and flow rather than fracture – but researchers, led by Southampton’s Dr Catriona Menzies, have now found fluids derived from rainwater at these levels.

The news release also covers the implications of this finding,

Fluids in the Earth’s crust can weaken rocks and may help to initiate earthquakes along locked fault lines. They also concentrate valuable metals such as gold. The new findings suggest that rainwater may be responsible for controlling these important processes, even deep in the Earth.

Researchers from the University of Southampton, GNS Science (New Zealand), the University of Otago, and the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre studied geothermal fluids and mineral veins from the Southern Alps of New Zealand, where the collision of two tectonic plates forces deeper layers of the earth closer to the surface.

The team looked into the origin of the fluids, how hot they were and to what extent they had reacted with rocks deep within the mountain belt.

“When fluids flow through the crust they leave behind deposits of minerals that contain a small amount of water trapped within them,” says Postdoctoral Researcher Catriona, who is based at the National Oceanography Centre. “We have analysed these waters and minerals to identify where the fluids deep in the crust came from.

“Fluids may come from a variety of sources in the crust. In the Southern Alps fluids may flow upwards from deep in the crust, where they are released from hot rocks by metamorphic reactions, or rainwater may flow down from the surface, forced by the high mountains above. We wanted to test the limits of where rainwater may flow in the crust. Although it has been suggested before, our data shows for the first time that rainwater does penetrate into rocks that are too deep and hot to fracture.”

Surface-derived waters reaching such depths are heated to over 400°C and significantly react with crustal rocks. However, through testing the researchers were able to establish the water’s meteoric origin.

Funding for this research, which has been published in Earth and Planetary Science Letters, was provided by the Natural Environmental Research Council (NERC). Catriona and her team are now looking further at the implications of their findings in relation to earthquake cycles as part of the international Deep Fault Drilling Project [DFDP], which aims to drill a hole through the Alpine Fault at a depth of about 1km later this year.

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

Incursion of meteoric waters into the ductile regime in an active orogen by Catriona D. Menzies, Damon A.H. Teagle, Dave Craw, Simon C. Cox, Adrian J. Boyce, Craig D. Barrie, and Stephen Roberts. Earth and Planetary Science Letters Volume 399, 1 August 2014, Pages 1–13 DOI: 10.1016/j.epsl.2014.04.046

Open Access funded by Natural Environment Research Council

This is the first time I’ve seen the funding agency which made the paper’s open access status possible cited.

From the quantum to the cosmos; an event at Vancouver’s (Canada) Science World

ARPICO (Society of Italian Researchers & Professionals in Western Canada) sent out an April 9, 2014 announcement,

FROM THE QUANTUM TO THE COSMOS

May 7 [2014] “Unveiling the Universe” lecture registration now open:

Join Science World and TRIUMF on Wednesday, May 7, at Science World at TELUS World of Science in welcoming Professor Edward “Rocky” Kolb, the Arthur Holly Compton Distinguished Service Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Chicago, for his lecture on how the laws of quantum physics at the tiniest distances relate to structures in the universe at the largest scales. He also will highlight recent spectacular results into the nature of the Big Bang from the orbiting Planck satellite and the South Pole-based BICEP2 telescope.

Doors open at 6:15pm and lecture starts at 7pm. It will be followed by an audience Q&A session.

Tickets are free but registration is required. Details on the registration page (link below)
See http://www.eventbrite.ca/o/unveiling-the-universe-lecture-series-2882137721?s=23658359 for more information.

You can go here to the Science World website for more details and another link for tickets,

Join Science World, TRIUMF and guest speaker Dr Rocky Kolb on Wednesday, May 7 [2014], for another free Unveiling the Universe public lecture about the inner space/outer space connection that may hold the key to understanding the nature of dark matter, dark energy and the mysterious seeds of structure that grew to produce everything we see in the cosmos.

I notice Kolb is associated with the Fermi Lab, which coincidentally is where TRIUMF’s former director, Nigel Lockyer is currently located. You can find out more about Kolb on his personal webpage, where I found this description from his repertoire of talks,

Mysteries of the Dark Universe
Ninety-five percent of the universe is missing! Astronomical observations suggest that most of the mass of the universe is in a mysterious form called dark matter and most of the energy in the universe is in an even more mysterious form called dark energy. Unlocking the secrets of dark matter and dark energy will illuminate the nature of space and time and connect the quantum with the cosmos.

Perhaps this along with the next bit gives you a clearer idea of what Kolb will be discussing. He will also be speaking at TRIUMF, Canada’s national laboratory of particle and nuclear physics, from the events page,

Wed ,2014-05-07    14:00    Colloquium    Rocky Kolb, Fermilab     Auditorium    The Decade of the WIMP
Abstract:    The bulk of the matter in the present universe is dark. The most attractive possibility for the nature of the dark matter is a new species of elementary particle known as a WIMP (a Weakly Interacting Massive Particle). After a discussion of how a WIMP might fit into models of particle physics, I will review the current situation with respect to direct detection, indirect detection, and collider production of WIMPs. Rapid advances in the field should enable us to answer by the end of the decade whether our universe is dominated by WIMPs.

You may want to get your tickets soon as other lectures in the Unveiling the Universe series have gone quickly.

Water desalination to be researched at Oman’s newly opened Nanotechnology Laboratory at Sultan Qaboos University

Before getting to the news, here’s some information (for those who may not be familiar with the country) about the Sultanate of Oman and why this water desalination project is very important. From the Oman Wikipedia essay (Note: Links have been removed),

Oman (Listeni/oʊˈmɑːn/ oh-MAAN; Arabic: عمان‎ ʻUmān), officially called the Sultanate of Oman (Arabic: سلطنة عُمان‎ Salṭanat ʻUmān), is an Arab state in southwest Asia on the southeast coast of the Arabian Peninsula. It has a strategically important position at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. It is bordered by the United Arab Emirates to the northwest, Saudi Arabia to the west, and Yemen to the southwest and also shares a marine border with Iran. The coast is formed by the Arabian Sea on the southeast and the Gulf of Oman on the northeast. The Madha and Musandam exclaves are surrounded by the UAE on their land borders, with the Strait of Hormuz and Gulf of Oman forming Musandam’s coastal boundaries.

From the 17th century, Oman had its own empire, and vied with Portugal and Britain for influence in the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean. At its peak in the 19th century, Omani influence or control extended across the Strait of Hormuz to Iran, and modern-day Pakistan, and as far south as Zanzibar.[7] As its power declined in the 20th century, the sultanate came under heavy influence from the United Kingdom, though Oman was never formally part of the British Empire, or a British protectorate.

Oman has a hot climate and very little rainfall. Annual rainfall in Muscat averages 100 mm (3.9 in), falling mostly in January. The Dhofar Mountains area receives seasonal rainfall (from late June to late September) as a result of the monsoon winds from the Indian Ocean saturated with cool moisture and heavy fog.[39] The mountain areas receive more plentiful rainfall, and annual rainfall on the higher parts of the Jabal Akhdar probably exceeds 400 mm (15.7 in).[40] Some parts of the coast, particularly near the island of Masirah, sometimes receive no rain at all within the course of a year. The climate generally is very hot, with temperatures reaching around 50 °C (122.0 °F) (peak) in the hot season, from May to September.

The Sultanate of Oman’s Ministry of Information’s Omanet.om website offers this about water (from the Water webpage),

Oman is in the world’s arid belt and depends on groundwater and its limited rainfall . The demand for water continues to rise.   A national water resources conservation plan has been drawn up to further rationalise and improve water consumption practices and explore for new groundwater reserves. The Sultanate now has a complete, up-to-date and properly documented database covering all the country’s available and potential water resources, together with details of their status and conditions. Studies on new ways of rationalising water consumption are ongoing.

 Water Resources Management

The approach here is the emphasis on making judicious use of available water resources and reducing waste.

The management plan includes:

Reduction of water loss to the sea or desert

Providing potable water in communities

Developing and improving aflaj systems

Intensification of studies

Changing land use in some regions

Increasing recovery rates of water loss

Implementation of awareness programs

The fact that there is a Middle East Desalination Research Center (MEDRC)suggests an important problem especially in this region. (If you know of any collaborative water projects for other regions, please do let me know about them in the Comments.) From the MEDRC homepage,

MEDRC is a Center of Excellence in Desalination and Water  Reuse Technology established in Muscat, Sultanate of Oman, December 1996.

MEDRC Mission Statement

The mission of MEDRC is to contribute to the achievement of peace and stability in the Middle East and North Africa by promoting and supporting the use of desalination to satisfy the needs of the people of this region for available, affordable, clean fresh water for human use and economic development. This is done through the advancement of desalination technology, education in the technology and training in its use, technology transfer, technical assistance, and building cooperation between nations to form the joint projects and international relationships necessary to meet the needs for fresh water.

The Peace Process to resolve the issues of Israel and the Palestinian National Authority that have troubled the Middle East for almost a century included the establishment of MEDRC to assist in meeting the fresh water needs of the parties involved. This is still the first priority of MEDRC. However, MEDRC’s activities extend to and benefit the entire region and beyond. MEDRC is advancing the use of desalination and waste water reuse thru regional and international cooperation to overcome current and future world water supply deficiencies.

The MEDRC also has a 6 pp. PDF titled: Overview on Desalinated Water in the Sultanate of Oman. So this news about a nanotechnology lab opening in Oman which is focused on water desalination is big news, from the Feb. 19, 2014 news item on Nanowerk,

The Nanotechnology laboratory at Sultan Qaboos University in Muscat, Oman, as a part of The Research Council (TRC ) Chair in Nanotechnology for Water Desalination, was officially opened yesterday under the patronage of Dr Hilal bin Ali al Hinai, Secretary-General of TRC. The state-of-the-art laboratory of the TRC Chair, contains wet-chemistry facilities and analytical equipment rooms, and has been built in a single workspace on the College of Engineering premises. Talking about the activities of the Chair in terms of research and related activities, Prof Joydeep Dutta, the Chair Professor, said that research and development focused on the application of nanoparticles, nanomaterials and desalination processes.

A Feb. 18, 2014 news item in the Oman Observer provides additional detail,

“The Chair aims at innovative research suited to the region, education and training of highly qualified personnel and in increasing public and industrial awareness of nanotechnology, amongst others. The current research group is involved in developing applications that address the needs of those who are without — clean drinking water, cheap energy, unspoiled food and the other necessities required to provide for a decent living. The Chair is focusing on dedicated research and development issues addressing water desalination-both of seawater as well as brackish water”, he said. At present, a few broad themes for research were identified in consultation with the technical committee and work is continuing along these themes. The research themes are “Designer metal-oxide nanostructures”, “Capacitive desalination with functionalised nanostructures”, “Condensation induced renewable desalting”, and “Functionalised micro or nano membranes”.

The unifying concept in the laboratory is to make use of inexpensive wet-chemical methods to fabricate innovative materials and futuristic device components with an eye on its application in water desalination and water treatment. …

Although dated Feb. 19, 2014, a news release on the Sultan Qaboos University (SQU) website appears to have originated the news item on the Nanowerk website and on the Osman Observer website.

I have previously written about water in the Middle East within the context of a June 25, 2013 post regarding a research collaboration between the University of Chicago and Ben Gurion University in Israel. I managed to include a bit about Palestine and its very serious water problem (the Gaza’s sole aquifer may be unusable by 2016) in that post, about 3/4 of the way down.

Nanotechnology-enabled water resource collaboraton between Israel and Chicago

A June 25, 2013 news item on Azonano describes a collaborative agreement between the University of Chicago and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (Israel) to work together and fund nanotechnology-enabled solutions for more water in the Middle East and elsewhere,

The University of Chicago and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev will begin funding a series of ambitious research collaborations that apply the latest discoveries in nanotechnology to create new materials and processes for making clean, fresh drinking water more plentiful and less expensive by 2020.

The announcement came June 23 following a meeting in Jerusalem among Israeli President Shimon Peres, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, University of Chicago President Robert J. Zimmer, Ben-Gurion University President Rivka Carmi and leading scientists in the field. The joint projects will explore innovative solutions at the water-energy nexus, developing more efficient ways of using water to produce energy and using energy to treat and deliver clean water.

There are more details in the June 23, 2013 University of Chicago news release, which originated the news item (Note: Links have been removed),

The University of Chicago also brings to the effort two powerful research partners already committed to clean water research: the Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, Ill., and the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass.

“We feel it is critical to bring outstanding scientists together to address water resource challenges that are being felt around the world, and will only become more acute over time,” said Zimmer. “Our purification challenges in the Great Lakes region right now are different from some of the scarcity issues some of our colleagues at Ben-Gurion are addressing, but our combined experience will be a tremendous asset in turning early-stage technologies into innovative solutions that may have applications far beyond local issues.”

“Clean, plentiful water is a strategic issue in the Middle East and the world at large, and a central research focus of our university for more than three decades,” said Carmi. “We believe that this partnership will enhance state-of-the-art science in both universities, while having a profound effect on the sustainable availability of clean water to people around the globe.”

The first wave of research proposals include fabricating new materials tailored to remove contaminants, bacteria, viruses and salt from drinking water at a fraction of the cost of current technologies; biological engineering that will help plants maximize their own drought-resistance mechanisms; and polymers that can change the water retention properties of soil in agriculture.

UChicago, BGU and Argonne have jointly committed more than $1 million in seed money over the next two years to support inaugural projects, with the first projects getting under way this fall.

One proposed project would attempt to devise multi-functional and anti-fouling membranes for water purification. These membranes, engineered at the molecular level, could be switched or tuned to remove a wide range of biological and chemical contaminants and prevent the formation of membrane-fouling bacterial films. Keeping those membranes free of fouling would extend their useful lives and decrease energy usage while reducing the operational cost of purifying water.

Another proposal focuses on developing polymers for soil infusion or seed coatings to promote water retention. Such polymers conjure visions of smart landscapes that can substantially promote agricultural growth while reducing irrigation needs.

Officials from both the U.S. and Israel hailed the collaboration as an example of the potential for collaborative innovation that can improve quality of life and boost economic vitality.

You can read more about the University of Chicago’s March 8, 2013 memorandum of understanding with the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in this March 19,2013 University of Chicago news article by Steve Koppes.

Sidenote: In early May 2013, internationally renowned physicist Stephen Hawking participated in an ‘academic’ boycott of Israel over its position on Palestine. The May 9, 2013 article, Stephen Hawking: Furore deepens over Israel boycott, by Harriet Sherwood, Matthew Kalman, and Sam Jones for the Guardian newspaper reveals some of the content of Hawking’s letter to the organizers and his reasons for participating in the boycott,

Hawking, a world-renowned scientist and bestselling author who has had motor neurone disease for 50 years, cancelled his appearance at the high-profile Presidential Conference, which is personally sponsored by Israel’s president, Shimon Peres, after a barrage of appeals from Palestinian academics.

The full text of the letter [from Hawking], dated 3 May, said: “I accepted the invitation to the Presidential Conference with the intention that this would not only allow me to express my opinion on the prospects for a peace settlement but also because it would allow me to lecture on the West Bank. However, I have received a number of emails from Palestinian academics. They are unanimous that I should respect the boycott. In view of this, I must withdraw from the conference. Had I attended, I would have stated my opinion that the policy of the present Israeli government is likely to lead to disaster.”

But Palestinians welcomed Hawking’s decision. “Palestinians deeply appreciate Stephen Hawking’s support for an academic boycott of Israel,” said Omar Barghouti, a founding member of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. “We think this will rekindle the kind of interest among international academics in academic boycotts that was present in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa.”

Steve Caplan in a May 13, 2013 piece (Occam’s Corner hosted by the Guardian) explained why he profoundly disagreed with Hawking’s position (Note: Links have been removed),

My respect for Hawking as a scientist and person of enormous courage has made my dismay at his recent decision all the greater. In these very virtual pages I have previously opined on the folly of imposing an academic boycott on Israel. The UK, which sports many of the supporters of this policy – dubiously known as the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) – also appears to be particularly fertile ground for anti-Semitism. To what degree British anti-Semitism, the anti-Israel BDS lobby and legitimate criticism of Israel’s policies are related is an inordinately complex question, but it is clear that anti-Semitism plays a role among some BDS supporters.

The decision by Hawking to join the boycotters of Israel and Israeli academics is particularly ironic in light of the fact that the conference is being hosted in honor of the 90th birthday of Israel’s president, Shimon Peres. More than any other Israeli leader, Peres has been committed to negotiations and comprehensive peace with the Palestinians, and he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. At 90, despite his figurehead position, Peres remains steadfastly optimistic in his relentless goal of a fair two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians.

Caplan’s summary of how the ‘Palestine problem’ was created and how we got to the current state of affairs is one of most the clear-headed I’ve seen,

Pinning the blame on one side with a propaganda machine and a sleeve full of slogans is easy to do, but there is nothing simple or straightforward about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. From the very birth of the State of Israel in 1948, the mode by which the Palestinian refugee problem was created has been debated intensely by historians. There is little question that a combination of intimidation by Israelis and acquiescence of the refugees to calls by Palestinian and Arab leaders to flee (and return with the victorious Arab armies) were the major causes of Palestinian uprooting.

To what degree was each side responsible? The Palestinians and Arab countries initiated the war in 1948, vetoing by force the United Nations Partition Plan to divide the country between Israelis and Palestinians – in an attempt to prevent any Jewish state from arising. And at the time, Israelis doubtlessly showed little concern at the growing numbers of Palestinians who fled or were forced from their homes. And later, after the Six-Day War in 1967, the Israelis displayed poor judgment (that unfortunately continues to this day) in allowing her citizens to build settlements in these conquered territories.

Both sides have suffered from poor leadership over the years.

Caplan also discusses the relationship between Israel’s government and its academics as he explains why he is opposed academic boycotts,

… in any case, Israeli academics and scientists are neither government mouthpieces nor puppets. There have frequently been serious disagreements between the government and the universities in Israel, highlighting the independence of Israel’s academic institutions. One such example is the Israeli government’s decision last year to upgrade the status of a college built in Ariel – a town inside the West Bank – to that of a university. This was vehemently opposed by Israel’s institutions of higher learning (and by perhaps 50% of the general population).

A second example is the unsuccessful attempt by the Israeli government to shut down Ben-Gurion University’s Department of Politics and Government – which was attacked for its leftist views. The rallying opposition and petition by Israeli academics across the country who warned of the danger to academic freedom helped prevent the department’s closure.

You’ll note the reference to Ben-Gurion University in that last paragraph excerpted from Caplan’s piece, which brings this posting back to where it started, collaboration between two universities to come up with solutions that address problems with access to water. In the end, I am inclined to agree with Caplan that we need to open up and maintain the lines of communication.

ETA June 27, 2013: There is no hint in the University of Chicago news releases that these water projects will benefit any parties other than Israel and the US but it is tempting to hope that this work might also have an impact in Palestine given its current water crisis there as described in a June 26, 2013 news item in the World Bulletin (Note: Links have been removed),

A tiny wedge of land jammed between Israel, Egypt and the Mediterranean sea, the Gaza Strip is heading inexorably into a water crisis that the United Nations says could make the Palestinian enclave unliveable in just a few years.

With 90-95 percent of the territory’s only aquifer contaminated by sewage, chemicals and seawater, neighbourhood desalination facilities and their public taps are a lifesaver for some of Gaza’s 1.6 million residents.

But these small-scale projects provide water for only about 20 percent of the population, forcing many more residents in the impoverished Gaza Strip to buy bottled water at a premium.

“There is a crisis. There is a serious deficit in the water resources in Gaza and there is a serious deterioration in the water quality,” said Rebhi El Sheikh, deputy chairman of the Palestinian Water Authority (PWA).

A NASA study of satellite data released this year showed that between 2003 and 2009 the region lost 144 cubic km of stored freshwater – equivalent to the amount of water held in the Dead Sea – making an already bad situation much worse.

But the situation in Gaza is particularly acute, with the United Nations warning that its sole aquifer might be unusable by 2016, with the damage potentially irreversible by 2020.

H/T June 26, 2013 Reuters news item.

TRIUMF looks for new Director as Nigel S. Lockyer exits for the Fermilab (US)

The circumstances around Nigel S. Lockyer’s departure as Director of Canada’s National Laboratory for Particle and Nuclear Physics, TRIUMF,  are very interesting. Just weeks ago, TRIUMF announced a major innovation for producing medical isotopes (my June 9, 2013 posting), which should have an enormous impact on cities around the world and their access to medical isotopes. (Briefly, cities with cyclotrons could produce, using the technology developed by TRIUMF,  their own medical isotopes without using material from nuclear reactors.)

Also in the recent past, Canada’s much storied McGill University joined the TRIUMF consortium (I’m surprized it took this long), from the May 10, 2013 news release,

At its recent Board of Management meeting, TRIUMF approved McGill University as an associate member of the consortium of universities that owns and operates Canada’s national laboratory for particle and nuclear physics. McGill joins 17 other Canadian universities in leading TRIUMF.

Paul Young, Chair of the Board and Vice President for Research at the University of Toronto, said, “The addition of McGill to the TRIUMF family is a great step forward. McGill brings world-class scientists and students to TRIUMF and TRIUMF brings world-leading research tools and partnerships to McGill.”

The university’s closer association with TRIUMF will allow it to participate in discussions about setting the direction of the laboratory as well provide enhanced partnerships for new research infrastructure that strengthens efforts on McGill’s campuses. Dr. Rose Goldstein, McGill Vice-Principal (Research and International Relations), said, “We are delighted to formalize our long-standing involvement in TRIUMF. It is an important bridge to international research opportunities at CERN and elsewhere. Associate membership in TRIUMF will also help McGill advance its Strategic Research Plan, especially in the priority area of exploring the natural environment, space, and the universe.”

McGill University has been involved in TRIUMF-led activities for several decades, most notably as part of the Higgs-hunting efforts at CERN. TRIUMF constructed parts of the Large Hadron Collider that ultimately produced Higgs bosons. The co-discovery was made by the ATLAS experiment for which TRIUMF led Canadian construction of several major components, and McGill played a key role in the development of the experiment’s trigger system. McGill and TRIUMF have also worked together on particle-physics projects in Japan and the U.S.

Professor Charles Gale, chair of the Department of Physics, played a key role in formalizing the relationship between TRIUMF and McGill. He said, “Our department is one of the top in North America in research, teaching, and service. Undoubtedly our work with TRIUMF has helped contribute to that and I expect both institutions to blossom even further.” Professor of physics and Canadian Research Chair in Particle Physics Brigitte Vachon added, “TRIUMF provides key resources to my students and me that make our research at CERN possible; the discovery of the Higgs boson is a perfect example of what such collaboration can achieve.”

Nigel S. Lockyer, director of TRIUMF, commented, “The addition of McGill to the TRIUMF team is welcome and long overdue. We have been working together for decades in subatomic physics and this acknowledgment of the partnership enhances both institutions and builds stronger ties in areas such as materials science and nuclear medicine.”

A scant month after McGill joins the consortium and weeks after a major announcement about medical isotopes, Lockyer announces his departure for the Fermilabs in the US, from the May 20, 2013 TRIUMF news release,

In his capacity as Chairman of the Board of Directors of Fermi Research Alliance, LLC, University of Chicago President Robert J. Zimmer today announced that TRIUMF’s director Nigel S. Lockyer has been selected to become the next director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, located outside Chicago.  Lockyer is expected to complete his work at TRIUMF this summer and begin at Fermilab in the autumn.

Paul Young, Chair of TRIUMF’s Board of Management and Vice President of Research and Innovation at the University of Toronto said, “Nigel was selected from a truly outstanding set of international candidates for this challenging and important position.  Although it will be a short-term loss, this development is a clear recognition of Nigel’s vision and passion for science and the international leadership taken by TRIUMF and Canada in subatomic physics.  On behalf of the entire TRIUMF Board, we wish Nigel, TRIUMF, and Fermilab every success in the future.”

Lockyer set TRIUMF upon a new course when he arrived six years ago, focusing the team on “Advancing isotopes for science and medicine.”  Based on TRIUMF’s existing infrastructure and talent, this initiative ranged from expanding the nuclear-medicine program so that it is now playing a leading role in resolving the medical-isotope crisis to the formulation and funding of a new flagship facility called ARIEL that will double TRIUMF’s capabilities for producing exotic isotopes used in science and for developing tomorrow’s medical isotopes.  At the heart of ARIEL is a next-generation electron accelerator using modern superconducting radio-frequency technology.

Commenting on Nigel’s leadership of TRIUMF, Paul Young added, “One look at TRIUMF’s current trajectory and you can see that this is a man of great ambition and talent.  Working with the Board and a great team at the lab, he propelled TRIUMF to new heights.  We have all been fortunate at TRIUMF to have Nigel as a colleague and leader.”

Reflecting on his time at TRIUMF and the upcoming transition to Fermilab, Nigel Lockyer said, “Knowing that TRIUMF is in good hands with a superb leadership team and seeing its growing string of accomplishments has helped make this decision a tiny bit easier.  The laboratory’s future is secure and TRIUMF knows exactly what it is doing.  I am proud to have contributed to TRIUMF’s successes and it is my hope to ignite the same energy and enthusiasm in the U.S. by heading the team at Fermilab.”  He added, “I also expect to foster a new level of partnership between the U.S. and Canada in these key areas of science and technology.”

“Nigel has had a profound impact on TRIUMF,” said David B. MacFarlane, chair of the National Research Council’s Advisory Committee on TRIUMF and Associate Laboratory Director at the U.S. SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.  “He articulated an ambitious new vision for the laboratory and energetically set it upon a path toward an exciting world-class program in rare-isotope beams and subatomic-physics research.  When ARIEL comes online, the lab will be fulfilling the vision that Nigel and his team boldly initiated.”  David MacFarlane added, “The TRIUMF community will certainly miss his warmth, his insatiable scientific curiosity, his creativity, and his faith in the laboratory and its entire staff.  However, I fully expect these same characteristics will serve Nigel well in his new leadership role as Fermilab director.”

As per standard practice, the TRIUMF Board of Management will announce plans and timelines for the international search process and interim leadership within the next few weeks.

Before speculating on the search process and interim leadership appointment, I have a comment of sorts about the Fermilab, which was last mentioned here in my Feb. 1, 2012 posting where I excerpted this interesting comment from a news release,

From the Feb. 1, 2012 news release on EurekAlert,

In this month’s Physics World, reviews and careers editor, Margaret Harris, visits the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) to explore what future projects are in the pipeline now that the Tevatron particle accelerator has closed for good.

After 28 years of ground-breaking discoveries, the Tevatron accelerator has finally surrendered to the mighty Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN [European Laboratory for Particle Physics], placing Fermilab, in some people’s mind, on the brink of disappearing into obscurity. [emphasis mine]

It seems the Fermilab is in eclipse and Lockyer is going there to engineer a turnaround. It makes one wonder what the conditions were when he arrived at TRIUMF six years ago (2006?). Leading on from that thought, the forthcoming decisions as to whom will be the interim Director and/or the next Director should be intriguing.

Usually an interim position is filled by a current staff member, which can lead to some fraught moments amongst internal competitors.  That action, however fascinating, does not tend to become fodder for public consumption.

Frankly, I’m more interested in the board’s perspective. What happens if they pick an internal candidate while they prepare for the next stage when they’re conducting their international search? Based on absolutely no inside information whatsoever, I’m guessing that Tim Meyer, Head, Strategic Planning & Communications for TRIUMF, would be a viable internal candidate for interim director.

From a purely speculative position, let’s assume he makes a successful play to become the interim Director. At this point, the board will have to consider what direction is the right one for TRIUMF while weighing up the various candidates for the permanent position.  Assuming the interim Director is ambitious and wants to become the permanent Director, the dynamics could get very interesting indeed.

From the board’s perspective, you want the best candidate and you want to keep your staff. In Canada, there’s one TRIUMF; there are no other comparable institutions in the country.  Should an internal candidate such as Meyer get the interim position but not the permanent one (assuming he’d want to be the permanent Director) he would have very few options in Canada.

Based on this speculation, I can safety predict some very interesting times ahead for TRIUMF and its board. In the meantime, I wish Lockyer all the best as he moves back to the US to lead the Fermilab.

Nanocrystals by design

A trio of researchers from the University of Chicago are looking for ways to design new atoms or nanocrystals according to the Dec. 5, 2012 news item on ScienceDaily,

Three University of Chicago chemistry professors hope that their separate research trajectories will converge to create a new way of assembling what they call “designer atoms” into materials with a broad array of potentially useful properties and functions.

These “designer atoms” would be nanocrystals — crystalline arrays of atoms intended to be manipulated in ways that go beyond standard uses of atoms in the periodic table. Such arrays would be suited to address challenges in solar energy, quantum computing and functional materials.

The partners in the project are Prof. David Mazziotti, and Associate Professors Greg Engel and Dmitri Talapin. All three have made key advances that are critical for moving the project forward. Now, with $1 million in funding from the W. M. Keck Foundation, they can build on their separate advances in a concerted way toward a new goal.

The Dec. 4, 2012 University of Chicago news release by Stephen Koppes, which originated the news item, provides some excellent descriptions of the science (thank you Stephen), as well as, a description of the work,

Developments in Talapin’s laboratory form the core of the project. A synthetic inorganic chemist, he specializes in creating precisely engineered nanocrystals with well-defined characteristics.

Nanocrystals consist of hundreds or thousands of atoms. This is small enough that new quantum phenomena begin to emerge, but large enough to provide convenient “modules” for the design of new materials. “It’s an interesting combination in that you build materials not from individual atoms, but from the units that resemble atoms in many ways but also behave as a metal, semiconductor or magnet. It’s a bit crazy,” Talapin said.

The potential of the new arrangements may exceed that of existing elements. Chemists cannot tune the properties of hydrogen or helium, for example, but they can tune the properties of nanocrystals.

“You build chemistry from atoms, and quantum mechanics provides principles for doing that,” said Mazziotti, referring to the laws of physics that dominate the world at ultra-small scales. “In the same way, we envision tremendous opportunities in terms of taking nanocrystalline arrays and nanocrystals as the building blocks for new structures where we assemble them into strongly correlated systems.”

The essence of strong correlation, of chemical bonds, of chemistry generally, is the connections between particles and how properties of these particles change as they bind to one another, Engel noted. “It’s about new emerging properties coming from strong mixing between the electronic states of particles, the same way two atoms come together to make a molecule,” he said.

Hydrogen and oxygen gases have very different properties. Yet when two hydrogen atoms share electrons with an oxygen atom, they form water. The UChicago trio’s ambition is to extend this framework from the level of individual atoms to the level of small, functional objects, such as metal or magnetic semiconductors.

The key to their project is controlling the degree of correlation between electrons on different nanocrystals. In 2009, Talapin and his collaborators developed a way to control the motions of electrons as they move from one nanocrystal to the next. Their “electronic glue” enables semiconductor nanocrystals to efficiently transfer their electric charges to one another, an important step in the synthesis of new materials.

Achieving greater control of correlated electrons—those whose motions are linked to each other—on different nanocrystals is the key to success in the Keck project.

Mazziotti and Engel bring theoretical and spectroscopic advances, respectively, to the collaboration. Mazziotti’s advance provides an alternative to traditional approaches to computing strongly correlated electrons in molecules, which scale exponentially with the number of electrons. He has solved a longstanding problem that enables calculations using just two of a molecule’s electrons, which dramatically decreases the computational cost.

His studies of firefly bioluminescence and other phenomena have shown that as molecular systems grow larger, strong correlations between electrons grow more powerful and open new possibilities for emergent behavior. In the context of a semiconducting material such as silicon, emergent behavior is how individual nanoparticles effectively lose their identity, giving rise to collective properties in new materials.

“As the size of a molecular system increases, we see the emergence of new physics behavior and the importance of strong correlation of electrons,” Mazziotti said. “The importance of strong correlation increases dramatically with system size.”

The advance in Engel’s research group was the development of a technique called GRadient-Assisted Photon Echo (GRAPE) spectroscopy, which borrows ideas from magnetic resonance imaging but is used for spectroscopy rather than medical imaging. Engel already has used GRAPE to observe the correlated motion and coupling between chromophores, which are light-absorbing molecules. Now he will apply the technique to nanocrystals.

Over the last 10 days or so, there have been a number of gobsmacking developments, including this one.

Science festivals in the US; nanoparticles and environmental health and safety report from ENRHES; new technique in molecular biology; PEN’s site remediation webcast commentary

I just came across a notice for the first ever USA Science and Engineering Festival to be held in Washington, DC, Oct. 10-24, 2010. From the Azonano news item,

Agilent Technologies Inc. (NYSE:A) today announced its support of the USA Science & Engineering Festival, the country’s first national science festival. The event will take place in Washington, D.C., in October 2010. The festival, expected to be a multi-cultural and multi-disciplinary celebration of science in the United States, will offer science and engineering organizations throughout the country the opportunity to present hands-on science activities to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers. Festival organizers already have engaged more than 350 participants from the nation’s leading science and engineering organizations.

From what I’ve seen of their website, they are using the term multi-disciplinary in a fairly conservative sense, i. e., different science and engineering disciplines are being brought together. This contrasts with the approach used in the World Science Festival, being held in New York, June 2-6, 2010, where they mash together artists as well as scientists from many different disciplines.

Michael Berger at Nanowerk sputters a bit as he comments on the Engineered Nanoparticles Review of Health and Environmental Safety (ENRHES) report,

Before we take a look at the report’s findings, it’s quite remarkable that the authors feel compelled to start their introduction section with this sentence: “Nanotechnology is a sector of the material manufacturing industry that has already created a multibillion $US market, and is widely expected to grow to 1 trillion $US by 2015.” Firstly, a lot of people would argue with the narrow definition of nanotechnology as being a sector of the material manufacturing industry. Secondly, it appears that still no publicly funded report can afford to omit the meaningless and nonsensical reference to a ‘trillion dollar industry by 2015′. It really is astonishing how this claim gets regurgitated over and over again – even by serious scientists – without getting scrutinized (read “Debunking the trillion dollar nanotechnology market size hype”). It would be interesting to know if scientific authors, who otherwise operate in a fact-based world, just accept a number picked out of thin air by some consultants because it helps impress their funders; or if they deliberately use what they know is a fishy number because the politicians and bureaucrats who control the purses are easily fooled by sensational claims like these and keep the funding coming.

Sadly, picking a number out of thin air happens more often than we like to believe. A few years back I was reading a book about food and how it’s changing as we keep manipulating our food products to make them last longer on the shelf, etc. In one chapter of the book, the author chatted with an individual who helped to define high cholesterol. As he told the story, he and his colleagues (scientists all) got in a room and picked a number that was used to define a high cholesterol count. (I will try to find the title of that book, unfortunately the memory escapes me at the moment. ETA: Mar.4.10, the book is by Gina Mellet, Last chance to eat, 2004) I’ve heard variations of this business of picking a number that sounds good before.

As for the rest of the ENRHES report, Berger has this to say,

Thankfully, the rest of the report stands on solid ground.

I’m using those last two words, “solid ground” to eventually ease my way into a discussion about site remediation and the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies’ (PEN) recent webcast. First, there’s a brief and related item on molecular biology.

Scientists at the University of Chicago are trying to develop a method for understanding how biological processes emerge from molecular interactions. From the news item (which includes an audio file of Andre Dinner, one of the scientists, discussing his work) on physorg.com,

Funded by a $1 million grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation, University of Chicago scientists are aiming to develop a reliable method for determining how biological processes emerge from molecular interactions. The method may permit them to “rewire” the regulatory circuitry of insulin-secreting pancreatic beta cells, which play a major role in type-2 diabetes.

A second goal: to control cell behavior and function more generally, which may ultimately culminate in other applications, including the bioremediation of environmental problems.

The four scientists [Aaron Dinner, Louis Philipson, Rustem Ismagilov, and Norbert Scherer] share an interest in the collective behavior of cells that emerges from a complex ensemble of atoms and molecules working in concert at different scales of time and space. “In a living system you have this hierarchy of coupled time and length scales,” Dinner said. “How is it that all of these different dynamics at one time and length scale get coupled to dynamics at another scale?”

In other words, how does life begin? I know that’s not the question they’re asking but this work has to lead in that direction and I imagine the synthetic biology people are watching with much interest.

In the more immediate future, this work in molecular biology may lead to better bioremediation, which was the topic at hand on the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies’ recent (Feb.4.10) webcast.From their website (you can click to view the webcast [approx. 54 mins.] from here),

A new review article appearing in Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP) co-authored by Dr. Todd Kuiken, research associate for the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN), Dr. Barbara Karn, Office of Research and Development, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Marti Otto, Office of Superfund Remediation and Technology Innovation, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency focuses on the use of nanomaterials for environmental cleanup. It provides an overview of current practices; research findings; societal issues; potential environment, health, and safety implications; and possible future directions for nanoremediation. The authors conclude that the technology could be an effective and economically viable alternative for some current site cleanup practices, but potential risks remain poorly understood.

There is an interactive map of remediation sites available here and, if you scroll down to the bottom of the page, you’ll find a link to the review article or you can go here.

I found the information interesting although I was not the intended audience. This was focused primarily on people who are involved in site remediation and/or are from the US. The short story is that more research needs to be done and there have been some very promising results. The use of nanoscale zero-valent iron (nZVI) nanoparticles was the main topic of discussion. It allows for ‘in situ’ site remediation, in other words, you don’t need to move soil and/or pump water through some treatment process. It’s not appropriate for all sites. It can be faster than the current site remediation treatments and it’s cheaper. There was no mention of any problems or hazards using nZVI but there hasn’t been much research either. The technique is now being used in seven different countries (including Canada with one in Ontario and one in Quebec). If I understand it rightly, there is no requirement to report nanotechnology-enabled site remediation so these numbers are based on self-reports. From the article in Environment Health Perspectives,

The number of actual applications of nZVI is increasing rapidly. Only a fraction of the projects has been reported, and new projects show up regularly. Figure 2 and Supplemental Material, Table 2 (doi:10.1289/ehp.0900793.S1) describe 44 sites where nanoremediation methods have been tested for site remediation.

I think that’s it for today, tomorrow some news from NISENet (Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network).