Tag Archives: US

A study in contrasts: innovation and education strategies in US and British Columbia (Canada)

It’s always interesting to contrast two approaches to the same issue, in this case, innovation and education strategies designed to improve the economies of the United States and of British Columbia, a province in Canada.

One of the major differences regarding education in the US and in Canada is that the Canadian federal government, unlike the US federal government, has no jurisdiction over the matter. Education is strictly a provincial responsibility.

I recently wrote a commentary (a Jan. 19, 2016 posting) about the BC government’s Jan. 18, 2016 announcement of its innovation strategy in a special emphasis on the education aspect. Premier Christy Clark focused largely on the notion of embedding courses on computer coding in schools from K-12 (kindergarten through grade 12) as Jonathon Narvey noted in his Jan. 19, 2016 event recap for Betakit,

While many in the tech sector will be focused on the short-term benefits of a quick injection of large capital [a $100M BC Tech Fund as part of a new strategy was announced in Dec. 2015 but details about the new #BCTECH Strategy were not shared until Jan. 18, 2016], the long-term benefits for the local tech sector are being seeded in local schools. More than 600,000 BC students will be getting basic skills in the K-12 curriculum, with coding academies, more work experience electives and partnerships between high school and post-secondary institutions.

Here’s what I had to say in my commentary (from the Jan. 19, 2016 posting),

… the government wants to embed  computer coding into the education system for K-12 (kindergarten to grade 12). One determined reporter (Canadian Press if memory serves) attempted to find out how much this would cost. No answer was forthcoming although there were many words expended. Whether this failure was due to ignorance (disturbing!) or a reluctance to share (also disturbing!) was impossible to tell. Another reporter (Georgia Straight) asked about equipment (coding can be taught with pen and paper but hardware is better). … Getting back to the reporter’s question, no answer was forthcoming although the speaker was loquacious.

Another reporter asked if the government had found any jurisdictions doing anything similar regarding computer coding. It seems they did consider other jurisdictions although it was claimed that BC is the first to strike out in this direction. Oddly, no one mentioned Estonia, known in some circles as E-stonia, where the entire school system was online by the late 1990s in an initiative known as the ‘Tiger Leap Foundation’ which also supported computer coding classes in secondary school (there’s more in Tim Mansel’s May 16, 2013 article about Estonia’s then latest initiative to embed computer coding into grade school.) …

Aside from the BC government’s failure to provide details, I am uncomfortable with what I see as an overemphasis on computer coding that suggests a narrow focus on what constitutes a science and technology strategy for education. I find the US approach closer to what I favour although I may be biased since they are building their strategy around nanotechnology education.

The US approach had been announced in dribs and drabs until recently when a Jan. 26, 2016 news item on Nanotechnology Now indicated a broad-based plan for nanotechnology education (and computer coding),

Over the past 15 years, the Federal Government has invested over $22 billion in R&D under the auspices of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) to understand and control matter at the nanoscale and develop applications that benefit society. As these nanotechnology-enabled applications become a part of everyday life, it is important for students to have a basic understanding of material behavior at the nanoscale, and some states have even incorporated nanotechnology concepts into their K-12 science standards. Furthermore, application of the novel properties that exist at the nanoscale, from gecko-inspired climbing gloves and invisibility cloaks, to water-repellent coatings on clothes or cellphones, can spark students’ excitement about science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

An earlier Jan. 25, 2016 White House blog posting by Lisa Friedersdorf and Lloyd Whitman introduced the notion that nanotechnology is viewed as foundational and a springboard for encouraging interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) careers while outlining several formal and information education efforts,

The Administration’s updated Strategy for American Innovation, released in October 2015, identifies nanotechnology as one of the emerging “general-purpose technologies”—a technology that, like the steam engine, electricity, and the Internet, will have a pervasive impact on our economy and our society, with the ability to create entirely new industries, create jobs, and increase productivity. To reap these benefits, we must train our Nation’s students for these high-tech jobs of the future. Fortunately, the multidisciplinary nature of nanotechnology and the unique and fascinating phenomena that occur at the nanoscale mean that nanotechnology is a perfect topic to inspire students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

The Nanotechnology: Super Small Science series [mentioned in my Jan. 21, 2016 posting] is just the latest example of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI)’s efforts to educate and inspire our Nation’s students. Other examples include:

The announcement about computer coding and courses being integrated in the US education curricula K-12 was made in US President Barack Obama’s 2016 State of the Union speech and covered in a Jan. 30, 2016 article by Jessica Hullinger for Fast Company,

In his final State Of The Union address earlier this month, President Obama called for providing hands-on computer science classes for all students to make them “job ready on day one.” Today, he is unveiling how he plans to do that with his upcoming budget.

The President’s Computer Science for All Initiative seeks to provide $4 billion in funding for states and an additional $100 million directly to school districts in a push to provide access to computer science training in K-12 public schools. The money would go toward things like training teachers, providing instructional materials, and getting kids involved in computer science early in elementary and middle school.

There are more details in the Hullinger’s article and in a Jan. 30, 2016 White House blog posting by Megan Smith,

Computer Science for All is the President’s bold new initiative to empower all American students from kindergarten through high school to learn computer science and be equipped with the computational thinking skills they need to be creators in the digital economy, not just consumers, and to be active citizens in our technology-driven world. Our economy is rapidly shifting, and both educators and business leaders are increasingly recognizing that computer science (CS) is a “new basic” skill necessary for economic opportunity and social mobility.

CS for All builds on efforts already being led by parents, teachers, school districts, states, and private sector leaders from across the country.

Nothing says one approach has to be better than the other as there’s usually more than one way to accomplish a set of goals. As well, it’s unfair to expect a provincial government to emulate the federal government of a larger country with more money to spend. I just wish the BC government (a) had shared details such as the budget allotment for their initiative and (b) would hint at a more imaginative, long range view of STEM education.

Going back to Estonia one last time, in addition to the country’s recent introduction of computer coding classes in grade school, it has also embarked on a nanotechnology/nanoscience educational and entrepreneurial programme as noted in my Sept. 30, 2014 posting,

The University of Tartu (Estonia) announced in a Sept. 29, 2014 press release an educational and entrepreneurial programme about nanotechnology/nanoscience for teachers and students,

To bring nanoscience closer to pupils, educational researchers of the University of Tartu decided to implement the European Union LLP Comenius project “Quantum Spin-Off – connecting schools with high-tech research and entrepreneurship”. The objective of the project is to build a kind of a bridge: at one end, pupils can familiarise themselves with modern science, and at the other, experience its application opportunities at high-tech enterprises. “We also wish to inspire these young people to choose a specialisation related to science and technology in the future,” added Lukk [Maarika Lukk, Coordinator of the project].

The pupils can choose between seven topics of nanotechnology: the creation of artificial muscles, microbiological fuel elements, manipulation of nanoparticles, nanoparticles and ionic liquids as oil additives, materials used in regenerative medicine, deposition and 3D-characterisation of atomically designed structures and a topic covered in English, “Artificial robotic fish with EAP elements”.

Learning is based on study modules in the field of nanotechnology. In addition, each team of pupils will read a scientific publication, selected for them by an expert of that particular field. In that way, pupils will develop an understanding of the field and of scientific texts. On the basis of the scientific publication, the pupils prepare their own research project and a business plan suitable for applying the results of the project.

In each field, experts of the University of Tartu will help to understand the topics. Participants will visit a nanotechnology research laboratory and enterprises using nanotechnologies.

The project lasts for two years and it is also implemented in Belgium, Switzerland and Greece.

As they say, time will tell.

Constructing a liver

Chinese researchers have taken a step closer to constructing complex (lifelike) liver tissue according to a Jan. 27, 2016 American Chemical Society (ACS) news release (also on EurekAlert),

Engineered liver tissue could have a range of important uses, from transplants in patients suffering from the organ’s failure to pharmaceutical testing [this usage is sometimes known as liver-on-a-chip]. Now scientists report in ACS’ journal Analytical Chemistry the development of such a tissue, which closely mimics the liver’s complicated microstructure and function more effectively than existing models.

The liver serves a critical role in digesting food and detoxifying the body. But due to a variety of factors, including viral infections, alcoholism and drug reactions, the organ can develop chronic or acute problems. When it doesn’t work well, a person can suffer abdominal pain, swelling, nausea and other symptoms. Complete liver failure can be life-threatening and can require a transplant, a procedure that currently depends on human donors. To curtail this reliance and provide an improved model for predicting drugs’ side effects, scientists have been engineering liver tissue in the lab. But so far, they haven’t achieved the complex architecture of the real thing. Jinyi Wang and colleagues came up with a new approach.

Wang’s team built a microfluidics-based tissue that copies the liver’s complex lobules, the organ’s tiny structures that resemble wheels with spokes. They did this with human cells from a liver and an aorta, the body’s main artery. In the lab, the engineered tissue had a metabolic rate that was closer to real-life levels than other liver models, and it successfully simulated how a real liver would react to various drug combinations. The researchers conclude their approach could lead to the development of functional liver tissue for clinical applications and screening drugs for side effects and potentially harmful interactions.

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

On-Chip Construction of Liver Lobule-like Microtissue and Its Application for Adverse Drug Reaction Assay by Chao Ma, Lei Zhao, En-Min Zhou, Juan Xu, Shaofei Shen, and Jinyi Wang. Northwest A&F University, China Anal. Chem., Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/acs.analchem.5b03869 Publication Date (Web): January 7, 2016

Copyright © 2016 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

In a teleconference earlier this month (January 2016), I spoke to researchers at the University of Malaya, Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM), and Harvard University about a joint lung and nanomedicine research project where I asked researcher Joseph Brain (Harvard) about using lung-on-a-chip testing in place of in vivo (animal) testing and he indicated more confidence in the ‘precision cut lung slices’ technique. (You can find out more about the Malaysian project in my Jan. 12, 2016 posting but there’s only a brief mention of Brain’s preferred alternative animal testing technique.)

When an atom more or less makes a big difference

As scientists continue exploring the nanoscale, it seems that finding the number of atoms in your particle makes a difference is no longer so surprising. From a Jan. 28, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily,

Combining experimental investigations and theoretical simulations, researchers have explained why platinum nanoclusters of a specific size range facilitate the hydrogenation reaction used to produce ethane from ethylene. The research offers new insights into the role of cluster shapes in catalyzing reactions at the nanoscale, and could help materials scientists optimize nanocatalysts for a broad class of other reactions.

A Jan. 28, 2016 Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) news release (*also on EurekAlert*), which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

At the macro-scale, the conversion of ethylene has long been considered among the reactions insensitive to the structure of the catalyst used. However, by examining reactions catalyzed by platinum clusters containing between 9 and 15 atoms, researchers in Germany and the United States found that at the nanoscale, that’s no longer true. The shape of nanoscale clusters, they found, can dramatically affect reaction efficiency.

While the study investigated only platinum nanoclusters and the ethylene reaction, the fundamental principles may apply to other catalysts and reactions, demonstrating how materials at the very smallest size scales can provide different properties than the same material in bulk quantities. …

“We have re-examined the validity of a very fundamental concept on a very fundamental reaction,” said Uzi Landman, a Regents’ Professor and F.E. Callaway Chair in the School of Physics at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “We found that in the ultra-small catalyst range, on the order of a nanometer in size, old concepts don’t hold. New types of reactivity can occur because of changes in one or two atoms of a cluster at the nanoscale.”

The widely-used conversion process actually involves two separate reactions: (1) dissociation of H2 molecules into single hydrogen atoms, and (2) their addition to the ethylene, which involves conversion of a double bond into a single bond. In addition to producing ethane, the reaction can also take an alternative route that leads to the production of ethylidyne, which poisons the catalyst and prevents further reaction.

The project began with Professor Ueli Heiz and researchers in his group at the Technical University of Munich experimentally examining reaction rates for clusters containing 9, 10, 11, 12 or 13 platinum atoms that had been placed atop a magnesium oxide substrate. The 9-atom nanoclusters failed to produce a significant reaction, while larger clusters catalyzed the ethylene hydrogenation reaction with increasingly better efficiency. The best reaction occurred with 13-atom clusters.

Bokwon Yoon, a research scientist in Georgia Tech’s Center for Computational Materials Science, and Landman, the center’s director, then used large-scale first-principles quantum mechanical simulations to understand how the size of the clusters – and their shape – affected the reactivity. Using their simulations, they discovered that the 9-atom cluster resembled a symmetrical “hut,” while the larger clusters had bulges that served to concentrate electrical charges from the substrate.

“That one atom changes the whole activity of the catalyst,” Landman said. “We found that the extra atom operates like a lightning rod. The distribution of the excess charge from the substrate helps facilitate the reaction. Platinum 9 has a compact shape that doesn’t facilitate the reaction, but adding just one atom changes everything.”

Here’s an illustration featuring the difference between a 9 atom cluster and a 10 atom cluster,

A single atom makes a difference in the catalytic properties of platinum nanoclusters. Shown are platinum 9 (top) and platinum 10 (bottom). (Credit: Uzi Landman, Georgia Tech)

A single atom makes a difference in the catalytic properties of platinum nanoclusters. Shown are platinum 9 (top) and platinum 10 (bottom). (Credit: Uzi Landman, Georgia Tech)

The news release explains why the larger clusters function as catalysts,

Nanoclusters with 13 atoms provided the maximum reactivity because the additional atoms shift the structure in a phenomena Landman calls “fluxionality.” This structural adjustment has also been noted in earlier work of these two research groups, in studies of clusters of gold [emphasis mine] which are used in other catalytic reactions.

“Dynamic fluxionality is the ability of the cluster to distort its structure to accommodate the reactants to actually enhance reactivity,” he explained. “Only very small aggregates of metal can show such behavior, which mimics a biochemical enzyme.”

The simulations showed that catalyst poisoning also varies with cluster size – and temperature. The 10-atom clusters can be poisoned at room temperature, while the 13-atom clusters are poisoned only at higher temperatures, helping to account for their improved reactivity.

“Small really is different,” said Landman. “Once you get into this size regime, the old rules of structure sensitivity and structure insensitivity must be assessed for their continued validity. It’s not a question anymore of surface-to-volume ratio because everything is on the surface in these very small clusters.”

While the project examined only one reaction and one type of catalyst, the principles governing nanoscale catalysis – and the importance of re-examining traditional expectations – likely apply to a broad range of reactions catalyzed by nanoclusters at the smallest size scale. Such nanocatalysts are becoming more attractive as a means of conserving supplies of costly platinum.

“It’s a much richer world at the nanoscale than at the macroscopic scale,” added Landman. “These are very important messages for materials scientists and chemists who wish to design catalysts for new purposes, because the capabilities can be very different.”

Along with the experimental surface characterization and reactivity measurements, the first-principles theoretical simulations provide a unique practical means for examining these structural and electronic issues because the clusters are too small to be seen with sufficient resolution using most electron microscopy techniques or traditional crystallography.

“We have looked at how the number of atoms dictates the geometrical structure of the cluster catalysts on the surface and how this geometrical structure is associated with electronic properties that bring about chemical bonding characteristics that enhance the reactions,” Landman added.

I highlighted the news release’s reference to gold nanoclusters as I have noted the number issue in two April 14, 2015 postings, neither of which featured Georgia Tech, Gold atoms: sometimes they’re a metal and sometimes they’re a molecule and Nature’s patterns reflected in gold nanoparticles.

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

Structure sensitivity in the nonscalable regime explored via catalysed ethylene hydrogenation on supported platinum nanoclusters by Andrew S. Crampton, Marian D. Rötzer, Claron J. Ridge, Florian F. Schweinberger, Ueli Heiz, Bokwon Yoon, & Uzi Landman.  Nature Communications 7, Article number: 10389  doi:10.1038/ncomms10389 Published 28 January 2016

This paper is open access.

*’also on EurekAlert’ added Jan. 29, 2016.

Cambridge University researchers tell us why Spiderman can’t exist while Stanford University proves otherwise

A team of zoology researchers at Cambridge University (UK) find themselves in the unenviable position of having their peer-reviewed study used as a source of unintentional humour. I gather zoologists (Cambridge) and engineers (Stanford) don’t have much opportunity to share information.

A Jan. 18, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily announces the Cambridge research findings,

Latest research reveals why geckos are the largest animals able to scale smooth vertical walls — even larger climbers would require unmanageably large sticky footpads. Scientists estimate that a human would need adhesive pads covering 40% of their body surface in order to walk up a wall like Spiderman, and believe their insights have implications for the feasibility of large-scale, gecko-like adhesives.

A Jan. 18, 2016 Cambridge University press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the research and the thinking that led to the researchers’ conclusions,

Dr David Labonte and his colleagues in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology found that tiny mites use approximately 200 times less of their total body area for adhesive pads than geckos, nature’s largest adhesion-based climbers. And humans? We’d need about 40% of our total body surface, or roughly 80% of our front, to be covered in sticky footpads if we wanted to do a convincing Spiderman impression.

Once an animal is big enough to need a substantial fraction of its body surface to be covered in sticky footpads, the necessary morphological changes would make the evolution of this trait impractical, suggests Labonte.

“If a human, for example, wanted to walk up a wall the way a gecko does, we’d need impractically large sticky feet – our shoes would need to be a European size 145 or a US size 114,” says Walter Federle, senior author also from Cambridge’s Department of Zoology.

The researchers say that these insights into the size limits of sticky footpads could have profound implications for developing large-scale bio-inspired adhesives, which are currently only effective on very small areas.

“As animals increase in size, the amount of body surface area per volume decreases – an ant has a lot of surface area and very little volume, and a blue whale is mostly volume with not much surface area” explains Labonte.

“This poses a problem for larger climbing species because, when they are bigger and heavier, they need more sticking power to be able to adhere to vertical or inverted surfaces, but they have comparatively less body surface available to cover with sticky footpads. This implies that there is a size limit to sticky footpads as an evolutionary solution to climbing – and that turns out to be about the size of a gecko.”

Larger animals have evolved alternative strategies to help them climb, such as claws and toes to grip with.

The researchers compared the weight and footpad size of 225 climbing animal species including insects, frogs, spiders, lizards and even a mammal.

“We compared animals covering more than seven orders of magnitude in weight, which is roughly the same as comparing a cockroach to the weight of Big Ben, for example,” says Labonte.

These investigations also gave the researchers greater insights into how the size of adhesive footpads is influenced and constrained by the animals’ evolutionary history.

“We were looking at vastly different animals – a spider and a gecko are about as different as a human is to an ant- but if you look at their feet, they have remarkably similar footpads,” says Labonte.

“Adhesive pads of climbing animals are a prime example of convergent evolution – where multiple species have independently, through very different evolutionary histories, arrived at the same solution to a problem. When this happens, it’s a clear sign that it must be a very good solution.”

The researchers believe we can learn from these evolutionary solutions in the development of large-scale manmade adhesives.

“Our study emphasises the importance of scaling for animal adhesion, and scaling is also essential for improving the performance of adhesives over much larger areas. There is a lot of interesting work still to do looking into the strategies that animals have developed in order to maintain the ability to scale smooth walls, which would likely also have very useful applications in the development of large-scale, powerful yet controllable adhesives,” says Labonte.

There is one other possible solution to the problem of how to stick when you’re a large animal, and that’s to make your sticky footpads even stickier.

“We noticed that within closely related species pad size was not increasing fast enough to match body size, probably a result of evolutionary constraints. Yet these animals can still stick to walls,” says Christofer Clemente, a co-author from the University of the Sunshine Coast [Australia].

“Within frogs, we found that they have switched to this second option of making pads stickier rather than bigger. It’s remarkable that we see two different evolutionary solutions to the problem of getting big and sticking to walls,” says Clemente.

“Across all species the problem is solved by evolving relatively bigger pads, but this does not seem possible within closely related species, probably since there is not enough morphological diversity to allow it. Instead, within these closely related groups, pads get stickier. This is a great example of evolutionary constraint and innovation.”

A researcher at Stanford University (US) took strong exception to the Cambridge team’s conclusions , from a Jan. 28, 2016 article by Michael Grothaus for Fast Company (Note: A link has been removed),

It seems the dreams of the web-slinger’s fans were crushed forever—that is until a rival university swooped in and saved the day. A team of engineers working with mechanical engineering graduate student Elliot Hawkes at Stanford University have announced [in 2014] that they’ve invented a device called “gecko gloves” that proves the Cambridge researchers wrong.

Hawkes has created a video outlining the nature of his dispute with Cambridge University and US tv talk show host, Stephen Colbert who featured the Cambridge University research in one of his monologues,

To be fair to Hawkes, he does prove his point. A Nov. 21, 2014 Stanford University report by Bjorn Carey describes Hawke’s ingenious ‘sticky pads,

Each handheld gecko pad is covered with 24 adhesive tiles, and each of these is covered with sawtooth-shape polymer structures each 100 micrometers long (about the width of a human hair).

The pads are connected to special degressive springs, which become less stiff the further they are stretched. This characteristic means that when the springs are pulled upon, they apply an identical force to each adhesive tile and cause the sawtooth-like structures to flatten.

“When the pad first touches the surface, only the tips touch, so it’s not sticky,” said co-author Eric Eason, a graduate student in applied physics. “But when the load is applied, and the wedges turn over and come into contact with the surface, that creates the adhesion force.”

As with actual geckos, the adhesives can be “turned” on and off. Simply release the load tension, and the pad loses its stickiness. “It can attach and detach with very little wasted energy,” Eason said.

The ability of the device to scale up controllable adhesion to support large loads makes it attractive for several applications beyond human climbing, said Mark Cutkosky, the Fletcher Jones Chair in the School of Engineering and senior author on the paper.

“Some of the applications we’re thinking of involve manufacturing robots that lift large glass panels or liquid-crystal displays,” Cutkosky said. “We’re also working on a project with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to apply these to the robotic arms of spacecraft that could gently latch on to orbital space debris, such as fuel tanks and solar panels, and move it to an orbital graveyard or pitch it toward Earth to burn up.”

Previous work on synthetic and gecko adhesives showed that adhesive strength decreased as the size increased. In contrast, the engineers have shown that the special springs in their device make it possible to maintain the same adhesive strength at all sizes from a square millimeter to the size of a human hand.

The current version of the device can support about 200 pounds, Hawkes said, but, theoretically, increasing its size by 10 times would allow it to carry almost 2,000 pounds.

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

Human climbing with efficiently scaled gecko-inspired dry adhesives by Elliot W. Hawkes, Eric V. Eason, David L. Christensen, Mark R. Cutkosky. Jurnal of the Royal Society Interface DOI: 10.1098/rsif.2014.0675 Published 19 November 2014

This paper is open access.

To be fair to the Cambridge researchers, It’s stretching it a bit to say that Hawke’s gecko gloves allow someone to be like Spiderman. That’s a very careful, slow climb achieved in a relatively short period of time. Can the human body remain suspended that way for more than a few minutes? How big do your sticky pads have to be if you’re going to have the same wall-climbing ease of movement and staying power of either a gecko or Spiderman?

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

Extreme positive allometry of animal adhesive pads and the size limits of adhesion-based climbing by David Labonte, Christofer J. Clemente, Alex Dittrich, Chi-Yun Kuo, Alfred J. Crosby, Duncan J. Irschick, and Walter Federle. PNAS doi: 10.1073/pnas.1519459113

This paper is behind a paywall but there is an open access preprint version, which may differ from the PNAS version, available,

Extreme positive allometry of animal adhesive pads and the size limits of adhesion-based climbing by David Labonte, Christofer J Clemente, Alex Dittrich, Chi-Yun Kuo, Alfred J Crosby, Duncan J Irschick, Walter Federle. bioRxiv
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1101/033845

I hope that if the Cambridge researchers respond, they will be witty rather than huffy. Finally, there’s this gecko image (which I love) from the Cambridge researchers,

 Caption: This image shows a gecko and ant. Credit: Image courtesy of A Hackmann and D Labonte

Caption: This image shows a gecko and ant. Credit: Image courtesy of A Hackmann and D Labonte

Origami and our pop-up future

They should have declared Jan. 25, 2016 ‘L. Mahadevan Day’ at Harvard University. The researcher was listed as an author on two major papers. I covered the first piece of research, 4D printed hydrogels, in this Jan. 26, 2016 posting. Now for Mahadevan’s other work, from a Jan. 27, 2016 news item on Nanotechnology Now,

What if you could make any object out of a flat sheet of paper?

That future is on the horizon thanks to new research by L. Mahadevan, the Lola England de Valpine Professor of Applied Mathematics, Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, and Physics at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). He is also a core faculty member of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, and member of the Kavli Institute for Bionano Science and Technology, at Harvard University.

Mahadevan and his team have characterized a fundamental origami fold, or tessellation, that could be used as a building block to create almost any three-dimensional shape, from nanostructures to buildings. …

A Jan. 26, 2016 Harvard University news release by Leah Burrows, which originated the news item, provides more detail about the specific fold the team has been investigating,

The folding pattern, known as the Miura-ori, is a periodic way to tile the plane using the simplest mountain-valley fold in origami. It was used as a decorative item in clothing at least as long ago as the 15th century. A folded Miura can be packed into a flat, compact shape and unfolded in one continuous motion, making it ideal for packing rigid structures like solar panels.  It also occurs in nature in a variety of situations, such as in insect wings and certain leaves.

“Could this simple folding pattern serve as a template for more complicated shapes, such as saddles, spheres, cylinders, and helices?” asked Mahadevan.

“We found an incredible amount of flexibility hidden inside the geometry of the Miura-ori,” said Levi Dudte, graduate student in the Mahadevan lab and first author of the paper. “As it turns out, this fold is capable of creating many more shapes than we imagined.”

Think surgical stents that can be packed flat and pop-up into three-dimensional structures once inside the body or dining room tables that can lean flat against the wall until they are ready to be used.

“The collapsibility, transportability and deployability of Miura-ori folded objects makes it a potentially attractive design for everything from space-bound payloads to small-space living to laparoscopic surgery and soft robotics,” said Dudte.

Here’s a .gif demonstrating the fold,

This spiral folds rigidly from flat pattern through the target surface and onto the flat-folded plane (Image courtesy of Mahadevan Lab) Harvard University

This spiral folds rigidly from flat pattern through the target surface and onto the flat-folded plane (Image courtesy of Mahadevan Lab) Harvard University

The news release offers some details about the research,

To explore the potential of the tessellation, the team developed an algorithm that can create certain shapes using the Miura-ori fold, repeated with small variations. Given the specifications of the target shape, the program lays out the folds needed to create the design, which can then be laser printed for folding.

The program takes into account several factors, including the stiffness of the folded material and the trade-off between the accuracy of the pattern and the effort associated with creating finer folds – an important characterization because, as of now, these shapes are all folded by hand.

“Essentially, we would like to be able to tailor any shape by using an appropriate folding pattern,” said Mahadevan. “Starting with the basic mountain-valley fold, our algorithm determines how to vary it by gently tweaking it from one location to the other to make a vase, a hat, a saddle, or to stitch them together to make more and more complex structures.”

“This is a step in the direction of being able to solve the inverse problem – given a functional shape, how can we design the folds on a sheet to achieve it,” Dudte said.

“The really exciting thing about this fold is it is completely scalable,” said Mahadevan. “You can do this with graphene, which is one atom thick, or you can do it on the architectural scale.”

Co-authors on the study include Etienne Vouga, currently at the University of Texas at Austin, and Tomohiro Tachi from the University of Tokyo. …

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

Programming curvature using origami tessellations by Levi H. Dudte, Etienne Vouga, Tomohiro Tachi, & L. Mahadevan. Nature Materials (2016) doi:10.1038/nmat4540 Published online 25 January 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.

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.

Decontamination of carbon nanotubes by microwave ovens

The lowly microwave oven plays a starring role in this tale of carbon nanotube purification. From a Jan. 22, 2016 news item on phys.org,

Amid all the fancy equipment found in a typical nanomaterials lab, one of the most useful may turn out to be the humble microwave oven.

A standard kitchen microwave proved effective as part of a two-step process invented at Rice [US] and Swansea [UK] universities to clean carbon nanotubes.

Basic [carbon] nanotubes are good for many things, like forming into microelectronic components or electrically conductive fibers and composites; for more sensitive uses like drug delivery and solar panels, they need to be as pristine as possible.

A Jan. 22, 2016 Rice University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the problem the researchers were solving and how they did it,

[Carbon] Nanotubes form from metal catalysts in the presence of heated gas, but residues of those catalysts (usually iron) sometimes remain stuck on and inside the tubes. The catalyst remnants can be difficult to remove by physical or chemical means because the same carbon-laden gas used to make the tubes lets carbon atoms form encapsulating layers around the remaining iron, reducing the ability to remove it during purification.

In the new process, treating the tubes in open air in a microwave burns off the amorphous carbon. The nanotubes can then be treated with high-temperature chlorine to eliminate almost all of the extraneous particles.

The labs of chemists Robert Hauge, Andrew Barron and Charles Dunnill led the study. Barron is a professor at Rice in Houston and at Swansea University in the United Kingdom. Rice’s Hauge is a pioneer in nanotube growth techniques. Dunnill is a senior lecturer at the Energy Safety Research Institute at Swansea.

There are many ways to purify nanotubes, but at a cost, Barron said. “The chlorine method developed by Hauge has the advantage of not damaging the nanotubes, unlike other methods,” he said. “Unfortunately, many of the residual catalyst particles are surrounded by a carbon layer that stops the chlorine from reacting, and this is a problem for making high-purity carbon nanotubes.”

The researchers gathered microscope images and spectroscopy data on batches of single-walled and multiwalled nanotubes before and after microwaving them in a 1,000-watt oven, and again after bathing them in an oxidizing bath of chlorine gas under high heat and pressure. They found that once the iron particles were exposed to the microwave, it was much easier to get them to react with chlorine. The resulting volatile iron chloride was then removed.

Eliminating iron particles lodged inside large multiwalled nanotubes proved to be harder, but transmission electron microscope images showed their numbers, especially in single-walled tubes, to be greatly diminished.

“We would like to remove all the iron, but for many applications, residue within these tubes is less of an issue than if it were on the surface,” Barron said. “The presence of residual catalyst on the surface of carbon nanotubes can limit their use in biological or medical applications.”

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

Enhanced purification of carbon nanotubes by microwave and chlorine cleaning procedures by Virginia Gomez,   Silvia Irusta, Wade Adams, Robert H Hauge, Charles W Dunnill, and Andrew Ross Barron.  RSC Adv., 2016, DOI: 10.1039/C5RA24854J First published online 22 Jan 2016

I believe this paper is behind a paywall.

Weaving at the nanoscale

A Jan. 21, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily announces a brand new technique,

For the first time, scientists have been able to weave a material at molecular level. The research is led by University of California Berkeley, in cooperation with Stockholm University. …

A Jan. 21, 2016 Stockholm University press release, which originated the news item, provides more information,

Weaving is a well-known way of making fabric, but has until now never been used at the molecular level. Scientists have now been able to weave organic threads into a three-dimensional material, using copper as a template. The new material is a COF, covalent organic framework, and is named COF-505. The copper ions can be removed and added without changing the underlying structure, and at the same time the elasticity can be reversibly changed.

– It almost looks like a molecular version of the Vikings chain-armour. The material is very flexible, says Peter Oleynikov, researcher at the Department of Materials and Environmental Chemistry at Stockholm University.

COF’s are like MOF’s porous three-dimensional crystals with a very large internal surface that can adsorb and store enormous quantities of molecules. A potential application is capture and storage of carbon dioxide, or using COF’s as a catalyst to make useful molecules from carbon dioxide.

Complex structure determined in Stockholm

The research is led by Professor Omar Yaghi at University of California Berkeley. At Stockholm University Professor Osamu Terasaki, PhD Student Yanhang Ma and Researcher Peter Oleynikov have contributed to determine the structure of COF-505 at atomic level from a nano-crystal, using electron crystallography methods.

– It is a difficult, complicated structure and it was very demanding to resolve. We’ve spent lot of time and efforts on the structure solution. Now we know exactly where the copper is and we can also replace the metal. This opens up many possibilities to make other materials, says Yanhang Ma, PhD Student at the Department of Materials and Environmental Chemistry at Stockholm University.

Another of the collaborating institutions, US Department of Energy Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory issued a Jan. 21, 2016 news release on EurekAlert, providing a different perspective and some additional details,

There are many different ways to make nanomaterials but weaving, the oldest and most enduring method of making fabrics, has not been one of them – until now. An international collaboration led by scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) and the University of California (UC) Berkeley, has woven the first three-dimensional covalent organic frameworks (COFs) from helical organic threads. The woven COFs display significant advantages in structural flexibility, resiliency and reversibility over previous COFs – materials that are highly prized for their potential to capture and store carbon dioxide then convert it into valuable chemical products.

“Weaving in chemistry has been long sought after and is unknown in biology,” Yaghi says [Omar Yaghi, chemist who holds joint appointments with Berkeley Lab’s Materials Sciences Division and UC Berkeley’s Chemistry Department and is the co-director of the Kavli Energy NanoScience Institute {Kavli-ENSI}]. “However, we have found a way of weaving organic threads that enables us to design and make complex two- and three-dimensional organic extended structures.”

COFs and their cousin materials, metal organic frameworks (MOFs), are porous three-dimensional crystals with extraordinarily large internal surface areas that can absorb and store enormous quantities of targeted molecules. Invented by Yaghi, COFs and MOFs consist of molecules (organics for COFs and metal-organics for MOFs) that are stitched into large and extended netlike frameworks whose structures are held together by strong chemical bonds. Such frameworks show great promise for, among other applications, carbon sequestration.

Through another technique developed by Yaghi, called “reticular chemistry,” these frameworks can also be embedded with catalysts to carry out desired functions: for example, reducing carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide, which serves as a primary building block for a wide range of chemical products including fuels, pharmaceuticals and plastics.

In this latest study, Yaghi and his collaborators used a copper(I) complex as a template for bringing threads of the organic compound “phenanthroline” into a woven pattern to produce an immine-based framework they dubbed COF-505. Through X-ray and electron diffraction characterizations, the researchers discovered that the copper(I) ions can be reversibly removed or restored to COF-505 without changing its woven structure. Demetalation of the COF resulted in a tenfold increase in its elasticity and remetalation restored the COF to its original stiffness.

“That our system can switch between two states of elasticity reversibly by a simple operation, the first such demonstration in an extended chemical structure, means that cycling between these states can be done repeatedly without degrading or altering the structure,” Yaghi says. “Based on these results, it is easy to imagine the creation of molecular cloths that combine unusual resiliency, strength, flexibility and chemical variability in one material.”

Yaghi says that MOFs can also be woven as can all structures based on netlike frameworks. In addition, these woven structures can also be made as nanoparticles or polymers, which means they can be fabricated into thin films and electronic devices.

“Our weaving technique allows long threads of covalently linked molecules to cross at regular intervals,” Yaghi says. “These crossings serve as points of registry, so that the threads have many degrees of freedom to move away from and back to such points without collapsing the overall structure, a boon to making materials with exceptional mechanical properties and dynamics.”


This research was primarily supported by BASF (Germany) and King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST).

It’s unusual that neither Stockholm University not the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory list all of the institutions involved. To get a sense of this international collaboration’s size, I’m going to list them,

  • 1Department of Chemistry, University of California, Berkeley, Materials Sciences Division, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and Kavli Energy NanoSciences Institute, Berkeley, CA 94720, USA.
  • 2Department of Materials and Environmental Chemistry, Stockholm University, SE-10691 Stockholm, Sweden.
  • 3Department of New Architectures in Materials Chemistry, Materials Science Institute of Madrid, Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, Madrid 28049, Spain.
  • 4Nanomaterials Research Institute, National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST), Tsukuba 305-8565, Japan.
  • 5NSF Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center (NSEC), University of California at Berkeley, 3112 Etcheverry Hall, Berkeley, CA 94720, USA.
  • 6Advanced Light Source, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Berkeley, CA 94720, USA.
  • 7King Abdulaziz City of Science and Technology, Post Office Box 6086, Riyadh 11442, Saudi Arabia.
  • 8Material Sciences Division, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, 1 Cyclotron Road, Berkeley, CA 94720, USA.
  • 9School of Physical Science and Technology, ShanghaiTech University, Shanghai 201210, China.

Given that some of the money came from a German company, I’m surprised not one German institution was involved.

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

Weaving of organic threads into a crystalline covalent organic framework by Yuzhong Liu, Yanhang Ma, Yingbo Zhao, Xixi Sun, Felipe Gándara, Hiroyasu Furukawa, Zheng Liu, Hanyu Zhu, Chenhui Zhu, Kazutomo Suenaga, Peter Oleynikov, Ahmad S. Alshammari, Xiang Zhang, Osamu Terasaki, Omar M. Yaghi. Science  22 Jan 2016: Vol. 351, Issue 6271, pp. 365-369 DOI: 10.1126/science.aad4011

This paper is behind a paywall.

Graphene-boron nitride material research from Rice University (US) and Polytechnique Montréal (Canada)

A Jan. 13, 2016 Rice University news release (also on EurekAlert) highlights computational research on hybrid material (graphene-boron nitride),

Developing novel materials from the atoms up goes faster when some of the trial and error is eliminated. A new Rice University and Montreal Polytechnic study aims to do that for graphene and boron nitride hybrids.

Rice materials scientist Rouzbeh Shahsavari and Farzaneh Shayeganfar, a postdoctoral researcher at Montreal Polytechnic (also known as École Polytechnique de Montréal or Polytechnique de Montréal), designed computer simulations that combine graphene, the atom-thick form of carbon, with either carbon or boron nitride nanotubes.

Their hope is that such hybrids can leverage the best aspects of their constituent materials. Defining the properties of various combinations would simplify development for manufacturers who want to use these exotic materials in next-generation electronics. The researchers found not only electronic but also magnetic properties that could be useful.

Shahsavari’s lab studies materials to see how they can be made more efficient, functional and environmentally friendly. They include macroscale materials like cement and ceramics as well as nanoscale hybrids with unique properties.

“Whether it’s on the macro- or microscale, if we can know specifically what a hybrid will do before anyone goes to the trouble of fabricating it, we can save cost and time and perhaps enable new properties not possible with any of the constituents,” Shahsavari said.

His lab’s computer models simulate how the intrinsic energies of atoms influence each other as they bond into molecules. For the new work, the researchers modeled hybrid structures of graphene and carbon nanotubes and of graphene and boron nitride nanotubes.

“We wanted to investigate and compare the electronic and potentially magnetic properties of different junction configurations, including their stability, electronic band gaps and charge transfer,” he said. “Then we designed three different nanostructures with different junction geometry.”

Two were hybrids with graphene layers seamlessly joined to carbon nanotubes. The other was similar but, for the first time, they modeled a hybrid with boron nitride nanotubes. How the sheets and tubes merged determined the hybrid’s properties. They also built versions with nanotubes sandwiched between graphene layers.

Graphene is a perfect conductor when its atoms align as hexagonal rings, but the material becomes strained when it deforms to accommodate nanotubes in hybrids. The atoms balance their energies at these junctions by forming five-, seven- or eight-member rings. These all induce changes in the way electricity flows across the junctions, turning the hybrid material into a valuable semiconductor.

The researchers’ calculations allowed them to map out a number of effects. For example, it turned out the junctions of the hybrid system create pseudomagnetic fields.

“The pseudomagnetic field due to strain was reported earlier for graphene, but not these hybrid boron nitride and carbon nanostructures where strain is inherent to the system,” Shahsavari said. He noted the effect may be useful in spintronic and nano-transistor applications.

“The pseudomagnetic field causes charge carriers in the hybrid to circulate as if under the influence of an applied external magnetic field,” he said. “Thus, in view of the exceptional flexibility, strength and thermal conductivity of hybrid carbon and boron nitride systems, we propose the pseudomagnetic field may be a viable way to control the electronic structure of new materials.”

All the effects serve as a road map for nanoengineering applications, Shahsavari said.

“We’re laying the foundations for a range of tunable hybrid architectures, especially for boron nitride, which is as promising as graphene but much less explored,” he said. “Scientists have been studying all-carbon structures for years, but the development of boron nitride and other two-dimensional materials and their various combinations with each other gives us a rich set of possibilities for the design of materials with never-seen-before properties.”

Shahsavari is an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering and of materials science and nanoengineering.


Rice supported the research, and computational resources were provided by Calcul Quebec and Compute Canada.

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

Electronic and pseudomagnetic properties of hybrid carbon/boron-nitride nanomaterials via ab-initio calculations and elasticity theory by Farzaneh Shayeganfar and Rouzbeh Shahsavari. Carbon Volume 99, April 2016, Pages 523–532 doi:10.1016/j.carbon.2015.12.050

This paper is behind a paywall.

Here’s an image illustrating the hybrid material,

Caption: The calculated properties of a three-dimensional hybrid of graphene and boron nitride nanotubes would have pseudomagnetic properties, according to researchers at Rice University and Montreal Polytechnic. Credit: Shahsavari Lab/Rice University

Caption: The calculated properties of a three-dimensional hybrid of graphene and boron nitride nanotubes would have pseudomagnetic properties, according to researchers at Rice University and Montreal Polytechnic. Credit: Shahsavari Lab/Rice University