Tag Archives: University of Waterloo

The State of Science and Technology (S&T) and Industrial Research and Development (IR&D) in Canada

Earlier this year I featured (in a July 1, 2016 posting) the announcement of a third assessment of science and technology in Canada by the Council of Canadian Academies. At the time I speculated as to the size of the ‘expert panel’ making the assessment as they had rolled a second assessment (Industrial Research and Development) into this one on the state of science and technology. I now have my answer thanks to an Oct. 17, 2016 Council of Canadian Academies news release announcing the chairperson (received via email; Note: Links have been removed and emphases added for greater readability),

The Council of Canadian Academies (CCA) is pleased to announce Dr. Max Blouw, President and Vice-Chancellor of Wilfrid Laurier University, as Chair of the newly appointed Expert Panel on the State of Science and Technology (S&T) and Industrial Research and Development (IR&D) in Canada.

“Dr. Blouw is a widely respected leader with a strong background in research and academia,” said Eric M. Meslin, PhD, FCAHS, President and CEO of the CCA. “I am delighted he has agreed to serve as Chair for an assessment that will contribute to the current policy discussion in Canada.”

As Chair of the Expert Panel, Dr. Blouw will work with the multidisciplinary, multi-sectoral Expert Panel to address the following assessment question, referred to the CCA by Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED):

What is the current state of science and technology and industrial research and development in Canada?

Dr. Blouw will lead the CCA Expert Panel to assess the available evidence and deliver its final report by late 2017. Members of the panel include experts from different fields of academic research, R&D, innovation, and research administration. The depth of the Panel’s experience and expertise, paired with the CCA’s rigorous assessment methodology, will ensure the most authoritative, credible, and independent response to the question.

“I am very pleased to accept the position of Chair for this assessment and I consider myself privileged to be working with such an eminent group of experts,” said Dr. Blouw. “The CCA’s previous reports on S&T and IR&D provided crucial insights into Canada’s strengths and weaknesses in these areas. I look forward to contributing to this important set of reports with new evidence and trends.”

Dr. Blouw was Vice-President Research, Associate Vice-President Research, and Professor of Biology, at the University of Northern British Columbia, before joining Wilfrid Laurier as President. Dr. Blouw served two terms as the chair of the university advisory group to Industry Canada and was a member of the adjudication panel for the Ontario Premier’s Discovery Awards, which recognize the province’s finest senior researchers. He recently chaired the International Review Committee of the NSERC Discovery Grants Program.

For a complete list of Expert Panel members, their biographies, and details on the assessment, please visit the assessment page. The CCA’s Member Academies – the Royal Society of Canada, the Canadian Academy of Engineering, and the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences – are a key source of membership for expert panels. Many experts are also Fellows of the Academies.

The Expert Panel on the State of S&T and IR&D
Max Blouw, (Chair) President and Vice-Chancellor of Wilfrid Laurier University
Luis Barreto, President, Dr. Luis Barreto & Associates and Special Advisor, NEOMED-LABS
Catherine Beaudry, Professor, Department of Mathematical and Industrial Engineering, Polytechnique Montréal
Donald Brooks, FCAHS, Professor, Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, and Chemistry, University of British Columbia
Madeleine Jean, General Manager, Prompt
Philip Jessop, FRSC, Professor, Inorganic Chemistry and Canada Research Chair in Green Chemistry, Department of Chemistry, Queen’s University; Technical Director, GreenCentre Canada
Claude Lajeunesse, FCAE, Corporate Director and Interim Chair of the Board of Directors, Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd.
Steve Liang, Associate Professor, Geomatics Engineering, University of Calgary; Director, GeoSensorWeb Laboratory; CEO, SensorUp Inc.
Robert Luke, Vice-President, Research and Innovation, OCAD University
Douglas Peers, Professor, Dean of Arts, Department of History, University of Waterloo
John M. Thompson, O.C., FCAE, Retired Executive Vice-Chairman, IBM Corporation
Anne Whitelaw, Associate Dean Research, Faculty of Fine Arts and Associate Professor, Department of Art History, Concordia University
David A. Wolfe, Professor, Political Science and Co-Director, Innovation Policy Lab, Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto

You can find more information about the expert panel here and about this assessment and its predecesors here.

A few observations, given the size of the task this panel is lean. As well, there are three women in a group of 13 (less than 25% representation) in 2016? It’s Ontario and Québec-dominant; only BC and Alberta rate a representative on the panel. I hope they will find ways to better balance this panel and communicate that ‘balanced story’ to the rest of us. On the plus side, the panel has representatives from the humanities, arts, and industry in addition to the expected representatives from the sciences.

Bob McDonald: How is Canada on the ‘forefront of pushing nanotechnology forward’?

Mr. Quirks & Quarks, also known as the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) Bob McDonald, host of the science radio programme Quirks & Quarks, published an Oct. 9, 2016 posting on the programme’s CBC blog about the recently awarded 2016 Nobel Prize for Chemistry and Canada’s efforts in the field of nanotechnology (Links have been removed),

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry awarded this week for developments in nanotechnology heralds a new era in science, akin to the discovery of electromagnetic induction 185 years ago. And like electricity, nanotechnology could influence the world in dramatic ways, not even imaginable today.

The world’s tiniest machines

The Nobel Laureates developed molecular machines, which are incredibly tiny devices assembled one molecule at a time, including a working motor, a lifting machine, a micro-muscle, and even a four wheel drive vehicle, all of which can only be seen with the most powerful electron microscopes. While these lab experiments are novel curiosities, the implications are huge, and Canada is on the forefront of pushing this research forward. [emphasis mine]

McDonald never explains how Canadians are pushing nanotechnology research further but there is this (Note: Links have been removed),

Many universities offer degree programs on the subject while organizations such as the National Institute for Nanotechnology at the University of Alberta, and the Waterloo Institute for Nanotechnology at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, are conducting fundamental research on these new novel materials.

Somehow he never mentions any boundary-pushing research. hmmm

To be blunt, it’s very hard to establish Canada’s position in the field since ‘nanotechnolgy research’ as such doesn’t exist here in the way it does in the United States, Korea, Iran, Germany, China, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Austria, and others. It’s not a federally coordinated effort in Canada despite the fact that we have a Canada National Research Council (NRC) National Institute of Nanotechnology (NINT) in Alberta. (There’s very little information about research on the NINT website.) A Government of Canada NanoPortal is poorly maintained and includes information that is seriously out-of-date. One area where Canadians have been influential has been at the international level where we’ve collaborated on a number of OECD (Organization for Economic and Cooperative Development) projects focused on safety (occupational and environmental, in particular) issues.

Canada’s Ingenuity Lab, a nanotechnology project that appeared promising, hasn’t made many research announcements and seems to be a provincial (Alberta) initiative rather than a federal one. In fact, the most activity in the field of nanotechnology research has been at the provincial level with Alberta and Québec in the lead, if financial investment is your primary measure, and Ontario following, then the other provinces trailing from behind. Unfortunately, I’ve never come across any nanotechnology research from the Yukon or other parts North.

With regard to research announcements, the situation changes and you have Québec and Ontario assuming the lead positions with Alberta following. As McDonald noted, the University of Waterloo has a major nanotechnology education programme and the University of Toronto seems to have a very active research focus in that field (Ted Sargent and solar cells and quantum dots) and the University of Guelph is known for its work in agriculture and nanotechnolgy (search this blog using any of the three universities as a search term). In Québec, they’ve made a number of announcements about cutting edge research. You can search this blog for the names Sylvain Martel, Federico Rosei, and Claude Ostiguy (who seems to work primarily in French), amongst others. CelluForce, based in Quebec, and once  a leader (not sure about the situation these days) in the production of cellulose nanocrystals (CNC). One side comment, CNC was first developed at the University of British Columbia, however, Québec showed more support (provincial funding) and interest and the bulk of that research effort moved.

There’s one more shout out and that’s for Blue Goose Biorefineries in the province of Saskatchewan, which sells CNC and offers services to help companies  research applications for the material.

One other significant area of interest comes to mind, the graphite mines in Québec and Ontario which supply graphite flakes used to produce graphene, a material that is supposed to revolutionize electronics, in particular.

There are other research efforts and laboratories in Canada but these are the institutions and researchers with which I’m most familiar after more than eight years of blogging about Canadian nanotechnology. That said, if I’ve missed any significant, please do let me know in the comments section of this blog.

Graphene Canada and its second annual conference

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

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

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

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

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

You can find the conference website here.

Smallest national flag record achieved to celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday

Courtesy University of Waterloo

Courtesy University of Waterloo

This is a partly nanoscale Canadian flag. For those who can’t read the text on the image, it says ‘Cursor Height = 501.7 nanometers [and] Cursor Width = 1.178 micrometers’.

A Sept. 19, 2016 news item on phys.org announces the latest ‘small’ flag,

The Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo set a world record for creating a Canadian flag measuring about one one-hundredth the width of a human hair.

Guinness World Records granted the inaugural award for smallest national flag to the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at Waterloo for the flag measuring 1.178 micrometres in length. It is invisible without the aid of an electron microscope.

A Sept. 19, 2016 University of Waterloo (Ontario, Canada) news release, which originated the news item, provides more detail about how the flag was fabricated (Note: A link has been removed),

Nathan Nelson-Fitzpatrick, nanofabrication process engineer at IQC, led the creation of the flag with assistance from Natalie Prislinger Pinchin, a Waterloo co-op student from the Faculty of Engineering. They created it on a silicon wafer bearing the official logo of the Canada 150 celebrations using an electron beam lithography system in the Quantum NanoFab facility at Waterloo.

“Canada 150 celebrates our past, present and future,” said Tobi Day-Hamilton, associate director of communications and strategic initiatives at IQC. “The future of Canadian technology is firmly set in the quantum world and at the nano-scale, so what better way to celebrate the lead up to 2017 than with a record-setting, nano-scale national flag.”

The record-setting flag was unveiled at IQC’s open house on September 17, which attracted nearly 1,000 visitors. It will also be on display in QUANTUM: The Exhibition, a Canada 150 Fund Signature Initiative, and part of Innovation150, a consortium of five leading Canadian science-outreach organizations. QUANTUM: The Exhibition is a 4,000-square-foot, interactive, travelling exhibit IQC developed highlighting Canada’s leadership in quantum information science and technology.

“I’m delighted that IQC is celebrating Canadian innovation through QUANTUM: The Exhibition and Innovation150,” said Raymond Laflamme, executive director of IQC. “It’s an opportunity to share the transformative technologies resulting from Canadian research and bring quantum computing to fellow Canadians from coast to coast to coast.”

The first of its kind, the exhibition will open at THEMUSEUM in downtown Kitchener on October 14 [2016], and then travel to science centres across the country throughout 2017.

You can find the English language version of QUANTUM: The Exhibition website here and the French language version of QUANTUM: The Exhibition website here.

There are currently four other venues for the show once finishes its run in Waterloo. From QUANTUM’S Join the Celebration webpage,


  • Science World at TELUS World of Science, Vancouver
  • TELUS Spark, Calgary
  • Discovery Centre, Halifax
  • Canada Science and Technology Museum, Ottawa

I gather they’re still looking for other venues to host the exhibition. If interested, there’s this: Contact us.

Other than the flag which is both nanoscale and microscale, they haven’t revealed what else will be included in their 4000 square foot exhibit but it will be “bilingual, accessible, and interactive.” Also, there will be stories.

Hmm. The exhibition is opening in roughly three weeks and they have no details. Strategy or disorganization? Only time will tell.

Nanotechnology, math, cancer, and a boxing metaphor

Violent metaphors in medicine are not unusual although the reference is often to war rather than boxing as it is in this news from the University of Waterloo (Canada). Still, it seems counter-intuitive to closely link violence with healing but the practice is well entrenched and it seems attempts to counteract it are a ‘losing battle’ (pun intended).

Credit: Gabriel Picolo "2-in-1 punch." Courtesy: University of Waterloo

Credit: Gabriel Picolo “2-in-1 punch.” Courtesy: University of Waterloo

A June 23, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily describes a new approach to cancer therapy,

Math, biology and nanotechnology are becoming strange, yet effective bed-fellows in the fight against cancer treatment resistance. Researchers at the University of Waterloo and Harvard Medical School have engineered a revolutionary new approach to cancer treatment that pits a lethal combination of drugs together into a single nanoparticle.

Their work, published online on June 3, 2016 in the leading nanotechnology journal ACS Nano, finds a new method of shrinking tumors and prevents resistance in aggressive cancers by activating two drugs within the same cell at the same time.

A June 23, 2016 University of Waterloo news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more information,

Every year thousands of patients die from recurrent cancers that have become resistant to therapy, resulting in one of the greatest unsolved challenges in cancer treatment. By tracking the fate of individual cancer cells under pressure of chemotherapy, biologists and bioengineers at Harvard Medical School studied a network of signals and molecular pathways that allow the cells to generate resistance over the course of treatment.

Using this information, a team of applied mathematicians led by Professor Mohammad Kohandel at the University of Waterloo, developed a mathematical model that incorporated algorithms that define the phenotypic cell state transitions of cancer cells in real-time while under attack by an anticancer agent. The mathematical simulations enabled them to define the exact molecular behavior and pathway of signals, which allow cancer cells to survive treatment over time.

They discovered that the PI3K/AKT kinase, which is often over-activated in cancers, enables cells to undergo a resistance program when pressured with the cytotoxic chemotherapy known as Taxanes, which are conventionally used to treat aggressive breast cancers. This revolutionary window into the life of a cell reveals that vulnerabilities to small molecule PI3K/AKT kinase inhibitors exist, and can be targeted if they are applied in the right sequence with combinations of other drugs.

Previously theories of drug resistance have relied on the hypothesis that only certain, “privileged” cells can overcome therapy. The mathematical simulations demonstrate that, under the right conditions and signaling events, any cell can develop a resistance program.

“Only recently have we begun to appreciate how important mathematics and physics are to understanding the biology and evolution of cancer,” said Professor Kohandel. “In fact, there is now increasing synergy between these disciplines, and we are beginning to appreciate how critical this information can be to create the right recipes to treat cancer.”

Although previous studies explored the use of drug combinations to treat cancer, the one-two punch approach is not always successful. In the new study, led by Professor Aaron Goldman, a faculty member in the division of Engineering in Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, the scientists realized a major shortcoming of the combination therapy approach is that both drugs need to be active in the same cell, something that current delivery methods can’t guarantee.

“We were inspired by the mathematical understanding that a cancer cell rewires the mechanisms of resistance in a very specific order and time-sensitive manner,” said Professor Goldman. “By developing a 2-in-1 nanomedicine, we could ensure the cell that was acquiring this new resistance saw the lethal drug combination, shutting down the survival program and eliminating the evidence of resistance. This approach could redefine how clinicians deliver combinations of drugs in the clinic.”

The approach the bioengineers took was to build a single nanoparticle, inspired by computer models, that exploit a technique known as supramolecular chemistry. This nanotechnology enables scientists to build cholesterol-tethered drugs together from “tetris-like” building blocks that self-assemble, incorporating multiple drugs into stable, individual nano-vehicles that target tumors through the leaky vasculature. This 2-in-1 strategy ensures that resistance to therapy never has a chance to develop, bringing together the right recipe to destroy surviving cancer cells.

Using mouse models of aggressive breast cancer, the scientists confirmed the predictions from the mathematical model that both drugs must be deterministically delivered to the same cell.

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

Rationally Designed 2-in-1 Nanoparticles Can Overcome Adaptive Resistance in Cancer by Aaron Goldman, Ashish Kulkarni, Mohammad Kohandel, Prithvi Pandey, Poornima Rao, Siva Kumar Natarajan, Venkata Sabbisetti, and Shiladitya Sengupta. ACS Nano, Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/acsnano.6b00320 Publication Date (Web): June 03, 2016

Copyright © 2016 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

The researchers have made this illustration of their work available,

Courtesy: American Chemical Society

Courtesy: American Chemical Society

A treasure trove of molecule and battery data released to the public

Scientists working on The Materials Project have taken the notion of open science to their hearts and opened up access to their data according to a June 9, 2016 news item on Nanowerk,

The Materials Project, a Google-like database of material properties aimed at accelerating innovation, has released an enormous trove of data to the public, giving scientists working on fuel cells, photovoltaics, thermoelectrics, and a host of other advanced materials a powerful tool to explore new research avenues. But it has become a particularly important resource for researchers working on batteries. Co-founded and directed by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) scientist Kristin Persson, the Materials Project uses supercomputers to calculate the properties of materials based on first-principles quantum-mechanical frameworks. It was launched in 2011 by the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Science.

A June 8, 2016 Berkeley Lab news release, which originated the news item, provides more explanation about The Materials Project,

The idea behind the Materials Project is that it can save researchers time by predicting material properties without needing to synthesize the materials first in the lab. It can also suggest new candidate materials that experimentalists had not previously dreamed up. With a user-friendly web interface, users can look up the calculated properties, such as voltage, capacity, band gap, and density, for tens of thousands of materials.

Two sets of data were released last month: nearly 1,500 compounds investigated for multivalent intercalation electrodes and more than 21,000 organic molecules relevant for liquid electrolytes as well as a host of other research applications. Batteries with multivalent cathodes (which have multiple electrons per mobile ion available for charge transfer) are promising candidates for reducing cost and achieving higher energy density than that available with current lithium-ion technology.

The sheer volume and scope of the data is unprecedented, said Persson, who is also a professor in UC Berkeley’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering. “As far as the multivalent cathodes, there’s nothing similar in the world that exists,” she said. “To give you an idea, experimentalists are usually able to focus on one of these materials at a time. Using calculations, we’ve added data on 1,500 different compositions.”

While other research groups have made their data publicly available, what makes the Materials Project so useful are the online tools to search all that data. The recent release includes two new web apps—the Molecules Explorer and the Redox Flow Battery Dashboard—plus an add-on to the Battery Explorer web app enabling researchers to work with other ions in addition to lithium.

“Not only do we give the data freely, we also give algorithms and software to interpret or search over the data,” Persson said.

The Redox Flow Battery app gives scientific parameters as well as techno-economic ones, so battery designers can quickly rule out a molecule that might work well but be prohibitively expensive. The Molecules Explorer app will be useful to researchers far beyond the battery community.

“For multivalent batteries it’s so hard to get good experimental data,” Persson said. “The calculations provide rich and robust benchmarks to assess whether the experiments are actually measuring a valid intercalation process or a side reaction, which is particularly difficult for multivalent energy technology because there are so many problems with testing these batteries.”

Here’s a screen capture from the Battery Explorer app,

The Materials Project’s Battery Explorer app now allows researchers to work with other ions in addition to lithium.

The Materials Project’s Battery Explorer app now allows researchers to work with other ions in addition to lithium. Courtesy: The Materials Project

The news release goes on to describe a new discovery made possible by The Materials Project (Note: A link has been removed),

Together with Persson, Berkeley Lab scientist Gerbrand Ceder, postdoctoral associate Miao Liu, and MIT graduate student Ziqin Rong, the Materials Project team investigated some of the more promising materials in detail for high multivalent ion mobility, which is the most difficult property to achieve in these cathodes. This led the team to materials known as thiospinels. One of these thiospinels has double the capacity of the currently known multivalent cathodes and was recently synthesized and tested in the lab by JCESR researcher Linda Nazar of the University of Waterloo, Canada.

“These materials may not work well the first time you make them,” Persson said. “You have to be persistent; for example you may have to make the material very phase pure or smaller than a particular particle size and you have to test them under very controlled conditions. There are people who have actually tried this material before and discarded it because they thought it didn’t work particularly well. The power of the computations and the design metrics we have uncovered with their help is that it gives us the confidence to keep trying.”

The researchers were able to double the energy capacity of what had previously been achieved for this kind of multivalent battery. The study has been published in the journal Energy & Environmental Science in an article titled, “A High Capacity Thiospinel Cathode for Mg Batteries.”

“The new multivalent battery works really well,” Persson said. “It’s a significant advance and an excellent proof-of-concept for computational predictions as a valuable new tool for battery research.”

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

A high capacity thiospinel cathode for Mg batteries by Xiaoqi Sun, Patrick Bonnick, Victor Duffort, Miao Liu, Ziqin Rong, Kristin A. Persson, Gerbrand Ceder and  Linda F. Nazar. Energy Environ. Sci., 2016, Advance Article DOI: 10.1039/C6EE00724D First published online 24 May 2016

This paper seems to be behind a paywall.

Getting back to the news release, there’s more about The Materials Project in relationship to its membership,

The Materials Project has attracted more than 20,000 users since launching five years ago. Every day about 20 new users register and 300 to 400 people log in to do research.

One of those users is Dane Morgan, a professor of engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who develops new materials for a wide range of applications, including highly active catalysts for fuel cells, stable low-work function electron emitter cathodes for high-powered microwave devices, and efficient, inexpensive, and environmentally safe solar materials.

“The Materials Project has enabled some of the most exciting research in my group,” said Morgan, who also serves on the Materials Project’s advisory board. “By providing easy access to a huge database, as well as tools to process that data for thermodynamic predictions, the Materials Project has enabled my group to rapidly take on materials design projects that would have been prohibitive just a few years ago.”

More materials are being calculated and added to the database every day. In two years, Persson expects another trove of data to be released to the public.

“This is the way to reach a significant part of the research community, to reach students while they’re still learning material science,” she said. “It’s a teaching tool. It’s a science tool. It’s unprecedented.”

Supercomputing clusters at the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC), a DOE Office of Science User Facility hosted at Berkeley Lab, provide the infrastructure for the Materials Project.

Funding for the Materials Project is provided by the Office of Science (US Department of Energy], including support through JCESR [Joint Center for Energy Storage Research].

Happy researching!

Prime Minister Trudeau, the quantum physicist

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s apparently extemporaneous response to a joking (non)question about quantum computing by a journalist during an April 15, 2016 press conference at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada has created a buzz online, made international news, and caused Canadians to sit taller.

For anyone who missed the moment, here’s a video clip from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC),

Aaron Hutchins in an April 15, 2016 article for Maclean’s magazine digs deeper to find out more about Trudeau and quantum physics (Note: A link has been removed),

Raymond Laflamme knows the drill when politicians visit the Perimeter Institute. A photo op here, a few handshakes there and a tour with “really basic, basic, basic facts” about the field of quantum mechanics.

But when the self-described “geek” Justin Trudeau showed up for a funding announcement on Friday [April 15, 2016], the co-founder and director of the Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo wasn’t met with simple nods of the Prime Minister pretending to understand. Trudeau immediately started talking about things being waves and particles at the same time, like cats being dead and alive at the same time. It wasn’t just nonsense—Trudeau was referencing the famous thought experiment of the late legendary physicist Erwin Schrödinger.

“I don’t know where he learned all that stuff, but we were all surprised,” Laflamme says. Soon afterwards, as Trudeau met with one student talking about superconductivity, the Prime Minister asked her, “Why don’t we have high-temperature superconducting systems?” something Laflamme describes as the institute’s “Holy Grail” quest.

“I was flabbergasted,” Laflamme says. “I don’t know how he does in other subjects, but in quantum physics, he knows the basic pieces and the important questions.”

Strangely, Laflamme was not nearly as excited (tongue in cheek) when I demonstrated my understanding of quantum physics during our interview (see my May 11, 2015 posting; scroll down about 40% of the way to the Ramond Laflamme subhead).

As Jon Butterworth comments in his April 16, 2016 posting on the Guardian science blog, the response says something about our expectations regarding politicians,

This seems to have enhanced Trudeau’s reputation no end, and quite right too. But it is worth thinking a bit about why.

The explanation he gives is clear, brief, and understandable to a non-specialist. It is the kind of thing any sufficiently engaged politician could pick up from a decent briefing, given expert help. …

Butterworth also goes on to mention journalists’ expectations,

The reporter asked the question in a joking fashion, not unkindly as far as I can tell, but not expecting an answer either. If this had been an announcement about almost any other government investment, wouldn’t the reporter have expected a brief explanation of the basic ideas behind it? …

As for the announcement being made by Trudeau, there is this April 15, 2016 Perimeter Institute press release (Note: Links have been removed),

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says the work being done at Perimeter and in Canada’s “Quantum Valley” [emphasis mine] is vital to the future of the country and the world.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau became both teacher and student when he visited Perimeter Institute today to officially announce the federal government’s commitment to support fundamental scientific research at Perimeter.

Joined by Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan and Small Business and Tourism Minister Bardish Chagger, the self-described “geek prime minister” listened intensely as he received brief overviews of Perimeter research in areas spanning from quantum science to condensed matter physics and cosmology.

“You don’t have to be a geek like me to appreciate how important this work is,” he then told a packed audience of scientists, students, and community leaders in Perimeter’s atrium.

The Prime Minister was also welcomed by 200 teenagers attending the Institute’s annual Inspiring Future Women in Science conference, and via video greetings from cosmologist Stephen Hawking [he was Laflamme’s PhD supervisor], who is a Perimeter Distinguished Visiting Research Chair. The Prime Minister said he was “incredibly overwhelmed” by Hawking’s message.

“Canada is a wonderful, huge country, full of people with big hearts and forward-looking minds,” Hawking said in his message. “It’s an ideal place for an institute dedicated to the frontiers of physics. In supporting Perimeter, Canada sets an example for the world.”

The visit reiterated the Government of Canada’s pledge of $50 million over five years announced in last month’s [March 2016] budget [emphasis mine] to support Perimeter research, training, and outreach.

It was the Prime Minister’s second trip to the Region of Waterloo this year. In January [2016], he toured the region’s tech sector and universities, and praised the area’s innovation ecosystem.

This time, the focus was on the first link of the innovation chain: fundamental science that could unlock important discoveries, advance human understanding, and underpin the groundbreaking technologies of tomorrow.

As for the “quantum valley’ in Ontario, I think there might be some competition here in British Columbia with D-Wave Systems (first commercially available quantum computing, of a sort; my Dec. 16, 2015 post is the most recent one featuring the company) and the University of British Columbia’s Stewart Blusson Quantum Matter Institute.

Getting back to Trudeau, it’s exciting to have someone who seems so interested in at least some aspects of science that he can talk about it with a degree of understanding. I knew he had an interest in literature but there is also this (from his Wikipedia entry; Note: Links have been removed),

Trudeau has a bachelor of arts degree in literature from McGill University and a bachelor of education degree from the University of British Columbia…. After graduation, he stayed in Vancouver and he found substitute work at several local schools and permanent work as a French and math teacher at the private West Point Grey Academy … . From 2002 to 2004, he studied engineering at the École Polytechnique de Montréal, a part of the Université de Montréal.[67] He also started a master’s degree in environmental geography at McGill University, before suspending his program to seek public office.[68] [emphases mine]

Trudeau is not the only political leader to have a strong interest in science. In our neighbour to the south, there’s President Barack Obama who has done much to promote science since he was elected in 2008. David Bruggeman in an April 15, 2016  post (Obama hosts DNews segments for Science Channel week of April 11-15, 2016) and an April 17, 2016 post (Obama hosts White House Science Fair) describes two of Obama’s most recent efforts.

ETA April 19, 2016: I’ve found confirmation that this Q&A was somewhat staged as I hinted in the opening with “Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s apparently extemporaneous response … .” Will Oremus’s April 19, 2016 article for Slate.com breaks the whole news cycle down and points out (Note: A link has been removed),

Over the weekend, even as latecomers continued to dine on the story’s rapidly decaying scraps, a somewhat different picture began to emerge. A Canadian blogger pointed out that Trudeau himself had suggested to reporters at the event that they lob him a question about quantum computing so that he could knock it out of the park with the newfound knowledge he had gleaned on his tour.

The Canadian blogger who tracked this down is J. J. McCullough (Jim McCullough) and you can read his Oct. 16, 2016 posting on the affair here. McCullough has a rather harsh view of the media response to Trudeau’s lecture. Oremus is a bit more measured,

… Monday brought the countertake parade—smaller and less pompous, if no less righteous—led by Gawker with the headline, “Justin Trudeau’s Quantum Computing Explanation Was Likely Staged for Publicity.”

But few of us in the media today are immune to the forces that incentivize timeliness and catchiness over subtlety, and even Gawker’s valuable corrective ended up meriting a corrective of its own. Author J.K. Trotter soon updated his post with comments from Trudeau’s press secretary, who maintained (rather convincingly, I think) that nothing in the episode was “staged”—at least, not in the sinister way that the word implies. Rather, Trudeau had joked that he was looking forward to someone asking him about quantum computing; a reporter at the press conference jokingly complied, without really expecting a response (he quickly moved on to his real question before Trudeau could answer); Trudeau responded anyway, because he really did want to show off his knowledge.

Trotter deserves credit, regardless, for following up and getting a fuller picture of what transpired. He did what those who initially jumped on the story did not, which was to contact the principals for context and comment.

But my point here is not to criticize any particular writer or publication. The too-tidy Trudeau narrative was not the deliberate work of any bad actor or fabricator. Rather, it was the inevitable product of today’s inexorable social-media machine, in which shareable content fuels the traffic-referral engines that pay online media’s bills.

I suggest reading both McCullough’s and Oremus’s posts in their entirety should you find debates about the role of media compelling.

Changing the colour of single photons in a diamond quantum memory

An artist’s impression of quantum frequency conversion in a diamond quantum memory. (Credit: Dr. Khabat Heshami, National Research Council Canada)

An artist’s impression of quantum frequency conversion in a diamond quantum memory. (Credit: Dr. Khabat Heshami, National Research Council Canada)

An April 5, 2016 University of Waterloo news release (also on EurekAlert) describes the research,

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo and the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) have, for the first time, converted the colour and bandwidth of ultrafast single photons using a room-temperature quantum memory in diamond.

Shifting the colour of a photon, or changing its frequency, is necessary to optimally link components in a quantum network. For example, in optical quantum communication, the best transmission through an optical fibre is near infrared, but many of the sensors that measure them work much better for visible light, which is a higher frequency. Being able to shift the colour of the photon between the fibre and the sensor enables higher performance operation, including bigger data rates.

The research, published in Nature Communications, demonstrated small frequency shifts that are useful for a communication protocol known as wavelength division multiplexing. This is used today when a sender needs to transmit large amounts of information through a transmission so the signal is broken into smaller packets of slightly different frequencies and sent through together. The information is then organized at the other end based on those frequencies.

In the experiments conducted at NRC, the researchers demonstrated the conversion of both the frequency and bandwidth of single photons using a room-temperature diamond quantum memory.

“Originally there was this thought that you just stop the photon, store it for a little while and get it back out. The fact that we can manipulate it at the same time is exciting,” said Kent Fisher a PhD student at the Institute for Quantum Computing and with the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Waterloo. “These findings could open the door for other uses of quantum memory as well.”

The diamond quantum memory works by converting the photon into a particular vibration of the carbon atoms in the diamond, called a phonon. This conversion works for many different colours of light allowing for the manipulation of a broad spectrum of light. The energy structure of diamond allows for this to occur at room temperature with very low noise. Researchers used strong laser pulses to store and retrieve the photon. By controlling the colours of these laser pulses, researchers controlled the colour of the retrieved photon.

“The fragility of quantum systems means that you are always working against the clock,” remarked Duncan England, researcher at NRC. “The interesting step that we’ve shown here is that by using extremely short pulses of light, we are able to beat the clock and maintain quantum performance.”

The integrated platform for photon storage and spectral conversion could be used for frequency multiplexing in quantum communication, as well as build up a very large entangled state – something called a cluster state. Researchers are interested in exploiting cluster states as the resource for quantum computing driven entirely by measurements.

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

Frequency and bandwidth conversion of single photons in a room-temperature diamond quantum memory by Kent A. G. Fisher, Duncan G. England, Jean-Philippe W. MacLean, Philip J. Bustard, Kevin J. Resch, & Benjamin J. Sussman. Nature Communications 7, Article number: 11200  doi:10.1038/ncomms11200 Published 05 April 2016

This paper is open access.

Handling massive digital datasets the quantum way

A Jan. 25, 2016 news item on phys.org describes a new approach to analyzing and managing huge datasets,

From gene mapping to space exploration, humanity continues to generate ever-larger sets of data—far more information than people can actually process, manage, or understand.

Machine learning systems can help researchers deal with this ever-growing flood of information. Some of the most powerful of these analytical tools are based on a strange branch of geometry called topology, which deals with properties that stay the same even when something is bent and stretched every which way.

Such topological systems are especially useful for analyzing the connections in complex networks, such as the internal wiring of the brain, the U.S. power grid, or the global interconnections of the Internet. But even with the most powerful modern supercomputers, such problems remain daunting and impractical to solve. Now, a new approach that would use quantum computers to streamline these problems has been developed by researchers at [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] MIT, the University of Waterloo, and the University of Southern California [USC}.

A Jan. 25, 2016 MIT news release (*also on EurekAlert*), which originated the news item, describes the theory in more detail,

… Seth Lloyd, the paper’s lead author and the Nam P. Suh Professor of Mechanical Engineering, explains that algebraic topology is key to the new method. This approach, he says, helps to reduce the impact of the inevitable distortions that arise every time someone collects data about the real world.

In a topological description, basic features of the data (How many holes does it have? How are the different parts connected?) are considered the same no matter how much they are stretched, compressed, or distorted. Lloyd [ explains that it is often these fundamental topological attributes “that are important in trying to reconstruct the underlying patterns in the real world that the data are supposed to represent.”

It doesn’t matter what kind of dataset is being analyzed, he says. The topological approach to looking for connections and holes “works whether it’s an actual physical hole, or the data represents a logical argument and there’s a hole in the argument. This will find both kinds of holes.”

Using conventional computers, that approach is too demanding for all but the simplest situations. Topological analysis “represents a crucial way of getting at the significant features of the data, but it’s computationally very expensive,” Lloyd says. “This is where quantum mechanics kicks in.” The new quantum-based approach, he says, could exponentially speed up such calculations.

Lloyd offers an example to illustrate that potential speedup: If you have a dataset with 300 points, a conventional approach to analyzing all the topological features in that system would require “a computer the size of the universe,” he says. That is, it would take 2300 (two to the 300th power) processing units — approximately the number of all the particles in the universe. In other words, the problem is simply not solvable in that way.

“That’s where our algorithm kicks in,” he says. Solving the same problem with the new system, using a quantum computer, would require just 300 quantum bits — and a device this size may be achieved in the next few years, according to Lloyd.

“Our algorithm shows that you don’t need a big quantum computer to kick some serious topological butt,” he says.

There are many important kinds of huge datasets where the quantum-topological approach could be useful, Lloyd says, for example understanding interconnections in the brain. “By applying topological analysis to datasets gleaned by electroencephalography or functional MRI, you can reveal the complex connectivity and topology of the sequences of firing neurons that underlie our thought processes,” he says.

The same approach could be used for analyzing many other kinds of information. “You could apply it to the world’s economy, or to social networks, or almost any system that involves long-range transport of goods or information,” says Lloyd, who holds a joint appointment as a professor of physics. But the limits of classical computation have prevented such approaches from being applied before.

While this work is theoretical, “experimentalists have already contacted us about trying prototypes,” he says. “You could find the topology of simple structures on a very simple quantum computer. People are trying proof-of-concept experiments.”

Ignacio Cirac, a professor at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics in Munich, Germany, who was not involved in this research, calls it “a very original idea, and I think that it has a great potential.” He adds “I guess that it has to be further developed and adapted to particular problems. In any case, I think that this is top-quality research.”

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

Quantum algorithms for topological and geometric analysis of data by Seth Lloyd, Silvano Garnerone, & Paolo Zanardi. Nature Communications 7, Article number: 10138 doi:10.1038/ncomms10138 Published 25 January 2016

This paper is open access.

ETA Jan. 25, 2016 1245 hours PST,

Shown here are the connections between different regions of the brain in a control subject (left) and a subject under the influence of the psychedelic compound psilocybin (right). This demonstrates a dramatic increase in connectivity, which explains some of the drug’s effects (such as “hearing” colors or “seeing” smells). Such an analysis, involving billions of brain cells, would be too complex for conventional techniques, but could be handled easily by the new quantum approach, the researchers say. Courtesy of the researchers

Shown here are the connections between different regions of the brain in a control subject (left) and a subject under the influence of the psychedelic compound psilocybin (right). This demonstrates a dramatic increase in connectivity, which explains some of the drug’s effects (such as “hearing” colors or “seeing” smells). Such an analysis, involving billions of brain cells, would be too complex for conventional techniques, but could be handled easily by the new quantum approach, the researchers say. Courtesy of the researchers

*’also on EurekAlert’ text and link added Jan. 26, 2016.

New photocatalytic approach to cleaning wastewater from oil sands

With oil sands in the title, this story had to mention the Canadian province of Alberta, which has been widely castigated and applauded for its oil extraction efforts in their massive oil sands field. A Nov. 24, 2015 news item on Nanotechnology Now describes a new technology for cleaning the wastewater from oil sands extraction processes,

Researchers have developed a process to remove contaminants from oil sands wastewater using only sunlight and nanoparticles that is more effective and inexpensive than conventional treatment methods.

Frank Gu, a professor in the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Waterloo [in the province of Ontario] and Canada Research Chair in Nanotechnology Engineering, is the senior researcher on the team that was the first to find that photocatalysis — a chemical reaction that involves the absorption of light by nanoparticles — can completely eliminate naphthenic acids in oil sands wastewater, and within hours. Naphthenic acids pose a threat to ecology and human health. Water in tailing ponds left to biodegrade naturally in the environment still contains these contaminants decades later.

A Nov. 23, 2015 University of Waterloo news release, which originated the news item, expands on the theme but doesn’t provide much in the way of technical detail,

“With about a billion tonnes of water stored in ponds in Alberta, removing naphthenic acids is one of the largest environmental challenges in Canada,” said Tim Leshuk, a PhD candidate in chemical engineering at Waterloo. He is the lead author of this paper and a recipient of the prestigious Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship. “Conventional treatments people have tried either haven’t worked, or if they have worked, they’ve been far too impractical or expensive to solve the size of the problem.  Waterloo’s technology is the first step of what looks like a very practical and green treatment method.”

Unlike treating polluted water with chlorine or membrane filtering, the Waterloo technology is energy-efficient and relatively inexpensive. Nanoparticles become extremely reactive when exposed to sunlight and break down the persistent pollutants in their individual atoms, completely removing them from the water. This treatment depends on only sunlight for energy, and the nanoparticles can be recovered and reused indefinitely.

Next steps for the Waterloo research include ensuring that the treated water meets all of the objectives Canadian environmental legislation and regulations required to ensure it can be safely discharged from sources larger than the samples, such as tailing ponds.

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

Solar photocatalytic degradation of naphthenic acids in oil sands process-affected water by Tim Leshuk, Timothy Wong, Stuart Linley, Kerry M. Peru, John V. Headley, Frank Gu. Chemosphere Volume 144, February 2016, Pages 1854–1861 doi:10.1016/j.chemosphere.2015.10.073

This paper is behind a paywall.