Tag Archives: US

Being solid and liquid over a range of 1000 degrees Fahrenheit means it’s perpetual ice

Duke University researchers along with their international collaborators have made an extraordinary observation. From an Aug. 3, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily,

Imagine pouring a glass of ice water and having the ice cubes remain unchanged hours later, even under a broiler’s heat or in the very back corner of the freezer.

That’s fundamentally the surprising discovery recently made by an international group of researchers led by an electrical engineering professor at Duke University in a paper published online in Nature Matter on July 25, 2016. But instead of a refreshing mixture of H2O in a pint glass, the researchers were working with the chemical element gallium on a nanoscopic scale.

This image shows a single gallium nanoparticle sitting on top of a sapphire base. The black sphere in the center reveals the presence of solid gallium within the liquid drop exterior. The sapphire base is important, as it is rigid with a relatively high surface energy. As the nanoparticle and sapphire try to minimize their total energy, this combination of properties drives the formation and coexistence of the two phases. Courtesy: Duke University

This image shows a single gallium nanoparticle sitting on top of a sapphire base. The black sphere in the center reveals the presence of solid gallium within the liquid drop exterior. The sapphire base is important, as it is rigid with a relatively high surface energy. As the nanoparticle and sapphire try to minimize their total energy, this combination of properties drives the formation and coexistence of the two phases. Courtesy: Duke University

An Aug. 3, 2016 Duke University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, explains more about gallium and about this new state,

Gallium is a soft, silvery bluish metal at room temperature. Raise the heat to 86 degrees Fahrenheit, however, and it melts. Drop the temperature to subzero levels, and it becomes hard and brittle. But when gallium nanoparticles sit on top of a sapphire surface, they form a solid core surrounded by a liquid outer layer. The discovery marks the first time that this stable phase coexistence phenomenon at the nanoscale has ever been directly observed.

“This odd combination of a liquid and solid state existing together has been predicted theoretically and observed indirectly in other materials in narrow bands of specific temperatures,” said April Brown, the John Cocke Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Duke. “But this finding was very unexpected, especially because of its stability over such a large temperature range.”

The temperature range Brown is referring to covers more than 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, all the way from -135 to 980 degrees.

“At a fundamental level, this finding reveals the need to reconsider all our presumptions about solid–liquid equilibrium,” wrote Andrés Aguado, professor of theoretical, atomic and optical physics at the University of Valladolid in Spain, in a News and Views piece appearing in the same edition of Nature Matter. “At a more applied level, the results hold much promise for future nanotechnology applications.”

Gallium is an important element in electronics and is used in microwave circuits, high-speed switching circuits and infrared circuits. The discovery of this novel part-solid, part-liquid nanoparticle phase could be useful in ultraviolet sensors, molecular sensing devices and enhanced photodetectors.

Brown hopes this work is just the tip of the iceberg, as she is planning on creating a facility at Duke to investigate what other nanoparticles might have similar unexpected phase qualities.

The research was conducted in conjunction with researchers at the Institute of Nanotechnology-CNR-Italy, the University of Western Australia, the University of Melbourne and Johannes Kepler University Linz.

This is an atomic view of liquid and solid gallium coexisting in a single nanoparticle taken by a transmission electron microscope. The circular shape on the left-hand side shows gallium atoms in an organized, crystalline, solid structure, while the atoms on the right are in liquid form, showing no organized structure at all. Courtesy: Duke University

This is an atomic view of liquid and solid gallium coexisting in a single nanoparticle taken by a transmission electron microscope. The circular shape on the left-hand side shows gallium atoms in an organized, crystalline, solid structure, while the atoms on the right are in liquid form, showing no organized structure at all. Courtesy: Duke University

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

Thermally stable coexistence of liquid and solid phases in gallium nanoparticles by Maria Losurdo, Alexandra Suvorova, Sergey Rubanov, Kurt Hingerl, & April S. Brown.  Nature Materials (2016) doi:10.1038/nmat4705 Published online 25 July 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.

Protecting soldiers from biological and chemical agents with a ‘second skin’ made of carbon nanotubes

There are lots of ‘second skins’ which promise to protect against various chemical and biological agents, the big plus for this ‘skin’ from the US Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is breathability. From an Aug. 3, 2016 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

This material is the first key component of futuristic smart uniforms that also will respond to and protect from environmental chemical hazards. The research appears in the July 27 [2016] edition of the journal, , Advanced Materials (“Carbon Nanotubes: Ultrabreathable and Protective Membranes with Sub-5 nm Carbon Nanotube Pores”).

An Aug. 3, 2016 Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, explains further (Note: Links have been removed),

High breathability is a critical requirement for protective clothing to prevent heat-stress and exhaustion when military personnel are engaged in missions in contaminated environments. Current protective military uniforms are based on heavyweight full-barrier protection or permeable adsorptive protective garments that cannot meet the critical demand of simultaneous high comfort and protection, and provide a passive rather than active response to an environmental threat.

The LLNL team fabricated flexible polymeric membranes with aligned carbon nanotube (CNT) channels as moisture conductive pores. The size of these pores (less than 5 nanometers, nm) is 5,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair [if 1 nm is 1/100,000 or 1/60,000 of a human hair {the two most commonly used measurements} then wouldn’t 5 nm be between 1/20,000 or1/15,000 of a human hair?] .

“We demonstrated that these membranes provide rates of water vapor transport that surpass those of commercial breathable fabrics like GoreTex, even though the CNT pores are only a few nanometers wide,” said Ngoc Bui, the lead author of the paper.

To provide high breathability, the new composite material takes advantage of the unique transport properties of carbon nanotube pores. By quantifying the membrane permeability to water vapor, the team found for the first time that, when a concentration gradient is used as a driving force, CNT nanochannels can sustain gas-transport rates exceeding that of a well-known diffusion theory by more than one order of magnitude.

These membranes also provide protection from biological agents due to their very small pore size — less than 5 nanometers (nm) wide. Biological threats like bacteria or viruses are much larger and typically more than 10-nm in size. Performed tests demonstrated that the CNT membranes repelled Dengue virus from aqueous solutions during filtration tests. This confirms that LLNL-developed CNT membranes provide effective protection from biological threats by size exclusion rather than by merely preventing wetting.

Furthermore, the results show that CNT pores combine high breathability and bio-protection in a single functional material.

However, chemical agents are much smaller in size and require the membrane pores to be able to react to block the threat. To encode the membrane with a smart and dynamic response to small chemical hazards, LLNL scientists and collaborators are surface modifying these prototype carbon nanotube membranes with chemical-threat-responsive functional groups. These functional groups will sense and block the threat like gatekeepers on the pore entrance. A second response scheme also is in development — similar to how living skin peels off when challenged with dangerous external factors. The fabric will exfoliate upon reaction with the chemical agent.

“The material will be like a smart second skin that responds to the environment,” said Kuang Jen Wu, leader of LLNL’s Biosecurity & Biosciences Group. “In this way, the fabric will be able to block chemical agents such as sulfur mustard (blister agent), GD and VX nerve agents, toxins such as staphylococcal enterotoxin and biological spores such as anthrax.”

Current work is directed toward designing this multifunctional material to undergo a rapid transition from the breathable state to the protective state.

“These responsive membranes are expected to be particularly effective in mitigating a physiological burden because a less breathable but protective state can be actuated locally and only when needed,” said Francesco Fornasiero, LLNL’s principal investigator of the project.

The new uniforms could be deployed in the field in less than 10 years.

“The goal of this science and technology program is to develop a focused, innovative technological solution for future chemical biological defense protective clothing,” said Tracee Whitfield, the DTRA [US Defense Threat Reduction Agency] science and technology manager for the Dynamic Multifunctional Material for a Second Skin Program. “Swatch-level evaluations will occur in early 2018 to demonstrate the concept of ‘second skin,’ a major milestone that is a key step in the maturation of this technology.”

The researchers have prepared a video describing their work,

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

Ultrabreathable and Protective Membranes with Sub-5 nm Carbon Nanotube Pores by Ngoc Bui, Eric R. Meshot, Sangil Kim, José Peña, Phillip W. Gibson, Kuang Jen Wu, and Francesco Fornasiero. Advanced Materials Volume 28, Issue 28, pages 5871–5877, July 27, 2016 DOI: 10.1002/adma.201600740 Version of Record online: 9 MAY 2016

© 2016 WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

This paper is behind a paywall.

Curbing police violence with machine learning

A rather fascinating Aug. 1, 2016 article by Hal Hodson about machine learning and curbing police violence has appeared in the New Scientist journal (Note: Links have been removed),

None of their colleagues may have noticed, but a computer has. By churning through the police’s own staff records, it has caught signs that an officer is at high risk of initiating an “adverse event” – racial profiling or, worse, an unwarranted shooting.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department in North Carolina is piloting the system in an attempt to tackle the police violence that has become a heated issue in the US in the past three years. A team at the University of Chicago is helping them feed their data into a machine learning system that learns to spot risk factors for unprofessional conduct. The department can then step in before risk transforms into actual harm.

The idea is to prevent incidents in which officers who are stressed behave aggressively, for example, such as one in Texas where an officer pulled his gun on children at a pool party after responding to two suicide calls earlier that shift. Ideally, early warning systems would be able to identify individuals who had recently been deployed on tough assignments, and divert them from other sensitive calls.

According to Hodson, there are already systems, both human and algorithmic, in place but the goal is to make them better,

The system being tested in Charlotte is designed to include all of the records a department holds on an individual – from details of previous misconduct and gun use to their deployment history, such as how many suicide or domestic violence calls they have responded to. It retrospectively caught 48 out of 83 adverse incidents between 2005 and now – 12 per cent more than Charlotte-Mecklenberg’s existing early intervention system.

More importantly, the false positive rate – the fraction of officers flagged as being under stress who do not go on to act aggressively – was 32 per cent lower than the existing system’s. “Right now the systems that claim to do this end up flagging the majority of officers,” says Rayid Ghani, who leads the Chicago team. “You can’t really intervene then.”

There is some cautious optimism about this new algorithm (Note: Links have been removed),

Frank Pasquale, who studies the social impact of algorithms at the University of Maryland, is cautiously optimistic. “In many walks of life I think this algorithmic ranking of workers has gone too far – it troubles me,” he says. “But in the context of the police, I think it could work.”

Pasquale says that while such a system for tackling police misconduct is new, it’s likely that older systems created the problem in the first place. “The people behind this are going to say it’s all new,” he says. “But it could be seen as an effort to correct an earlier algorithmic failure. A lot of people say that the reason you have so much contact between minorities and police is because the CompStat system was rewarding officers who got the most arrests.”

CompStat, short for Computer Statistics, is a police management and accountability system that was used to implement the “broken windows” theory of policing, which proposes that coming down hard on minor infractions like public drinking and vandalism helps to create an atmosphere of law and order, bringing serious crime down in its wake. Many police researchers have suggested that the approach has led to the current dangerous tension between police and minority communities.

Ghani has not forgotten the human dimension,

One thing Ghani is certain of is that the interventions will need to be decided on and delivered by humans. “I would not want any of those to be automated,” he says. “As long as there is a human in the middle starting a conversation with them, we’re reducing the chance for things to go wrong.”

h/t Terkko Navigator

I have written about police and violence here in the context of the Dallas Police Department and its use of a robot in a violent confrontation with a sniper, July 25, 2016 posting titled: Robots, Dallas (US), ethics, and killing.

Deriving graphene-like films from salt

This research comes from Russia (mostly). A July 29, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily describes a graphene-like structure derived from salt,

Researchers from Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT), Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology (Skoltech), the Technological Institute for Superhard and Novel Carbon Materials (TISNCM), the National University of Science and Technology MISiS (Russia), and Rice University (USA) used computer simulations to find how thin a slab of salt has to be in order for it to break up into graphene-like layers. Based on the computer simulation, they derived the equation for the number of layers in a crystal that will produce ultrathin films with applications in nanoelectronics. …

Caption: Transition from a cubic arrangement into several hexagonal layers. Credit: authors of the study

Caption: Transition from a cubic arrangement into several hexagonal layers. Credit: authors of the study

A July 29, 2016 Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology press release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item,  provides more technical detail,

From 3D to 2D

Unique monoatomic thickness of graphene makes it an attractive and useful material. Its crystal lattice resembles a honeycombs, as the bonds between the constituent atoms form regular hexagons. Graphene is a single layer of a three-dimensional graphite crystal and its properties (as well as properties of any 2D crystal) are radically different from its 3D counterpart. Since the discovery of graphene, a large amount of research has been directed at new two-dimensional materials with intriguing properties. Ultrathin films have unusual properties that might be useful for applications such as nano- and microelectronics.

Previous theoretical studies suggested that films with a cubic structure and ionic bonding could spontaneously convert to a layered hexagonal graphitic structure in what is known as graphitisation. For some substances, this conversion has been experimentally observed. It was predicted that rock salt NaCl can be one of the compounds with graphitisation tendencies. Graphitisation of cubic compounds could produce new and promising structures for applications in nanoelectronics. However, no theory has been developed that would account for this process in the case of an arbitrary cubic compound and make predictions about its conversion into graphene-like salt layers.

For graphitisation to occur, the crystal layers need to be reduced along the main diagonal of the cubic structure. This will result in one crystal surface being made of sodium ions Na? and the other of chloride ions Cl?. It is important to note that positive and negative ions (i.e. Na? and Cl?)–and not neutral atoms–occupy the lattice points of the structure. This generates charges of opposite signs on the two surfaces. As long as the surfaces are remote from each other, all charges cancel out, and the salt slab shows a preference for a cubic structure. However, if the film is made sufficiently thin, this gives rise to a large dipole moment due to the opposite charges of the two crystal surfaces. The structure seeks to get rid of the dipole moment, which increases the energy of the system. To make the surfaces charge-neutral, the crystal undergoes a rearrangement of atoms.

Experiment vs model

To study how graphitisation tendencies vary depending on the compound, the researchers examined 16 binary compounds with the general formula AB, where A stands for one of the four alkali metals lithium Li, sodium Na, potassium K, and rubidium Rb. These are highly reactive elements found in Group 1 of the periodic table. The B in the formula stands for any of the four halogens fluorine F, chlorine Cl, bromine Br, and iodine I. These elements are in Group 17 of the periodic table and readily react with alkali metals.

All compounds in this study come in a number of different structures, also known as crystal lattices or phases. If atmospheric pressure is increased to 300,000 times its normal value, an another phase (B2) of NaCl (represented by the yellow portion of the diagram) becomes more stable, effecting a change in the crystal lattice. To test their choice of methods and parameters, the researchers simulated two crystal lattices and calculated the pressure that corresponds to the phase transition between them. Their predictions agree with experimental data.

Just how thin should it be?

The compounds within the scope of this study can all have a hexagonal, “graphitic”, G phase (the red in the diagram) that is unstable in 3D bulk but becomes the most stable structure for ultrathin (2D or quasi-2D) films. The researchers identified the relationship between the surface energy of a film and the number of layers in it for both cubic and hexagonal structures. They graphed this relationship by plotting two lines with different slopes for each of the compounds studied. Each pair of lines associated with one compound has a common point that corresponds to the critical slab thickness that makes conversion from a cubic to a hexagonal structure energetically favourable. For example, the critical number of layers was found to be close to 11 for all sodium salts and between 19 and 27 for lithium salts.

Based on this data, the researchers established a relationship between the critical number of layers and two parameters that determine the strength of the ionic bonds in various compounds. The first parameter indicates the size of an ion of a given metal–its ionic radius. The second parameter is called electronegativity and is a measure of the ? atom’s ability to attract the electrons of element B. Higher electronegativity means more powerful attraction of electrons by the atom, a more pronounced ionic nature of the bond, a larger surface dipole, and a lower critical slab thickness.

And there’s more

Pavel Sorokin, Dr. habil., [sic] is head of the Laboratory of New Materials Simulation at TISNCM. He explains the importance of the study, ‘This work has already attracted our colleagues from Israel and Japan. If they confirm our findings experimentally, this phenomenon [of graphitisation] will provide a viable route to the synthesis of ultrathin films with potential applications in nanoelectronics.’

The scientists intend to broaden the scope of their studies by examining other compounds. They believe that ultrathin films of different composition might also undergo spontaneous graphitisation, yielding new layered structures with properties that are even more intriguing.

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

Ionic Graphitization of Ultrathin Films of Ionic Compounds by A. G. Kvashnin, E. Y. Pashkin, B. I. Yakobson, and P. B. Sorokin. J. Phys. Chem. Lett., 2016, 7 (14), pp 2659–2663 DOI: 10.1021/acs.jpclett.6b01214 Publication Date (Web): June 23, 2016

Copyright © 2016 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Placenta-on-a-chip for research into causes for preterm birth

Preterm birth (premature baby) research has received a boost with this latest work from the University of Pennsylvania. A July 21, 2016 news item on phys.org tells us more,

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have developed the first placenta-on-a-chip that can fully model the transport of nutrients across the placental barrier.

A July 21, 2016 University of Pennsylvania news release, which originated the news item, provides more detail about the chip and the research (Note: Links have been removed),

The flash-drive-sized device contains two layers of human cells that model the interface between mother and fetus. Microfluidic channels on either side of those layers allow researchers to study how molecules are transported through, or are blocked by, that interface.

Like other organs-on-chips, such as ones developed to simulate lungs, intestines and eyes, the placenta-on-a-chip provides a unique capability to mimic and study the function of that human organ in ways that have not been possible using traditional tools.

Research on the team’s placenta-on-a-chip is part of a nationwide effort sponsored by the March of Dimes to identify causes of preterm birth and ways to prevent it. Prematurely born babies may experience lifelong, debilitating consequences, but the underlying mechanisms of this condition are not well understood due in part to the difficulties of experimenting with intact, living human placentae.

The research was led by Dan Huh, the Wilf Family Term Assistant Professor of Bioengineering in Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, and Cassidy Blundell, a graduate student in the Huh lab. They collaborated with Samuel Parry, the Franklin Payne Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology; Christos Coutifaris, the Nancy and Richard Wolfson Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology in Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine; and Emily Su, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology in the Anschutz Medical School of the University of Colorado Denver.

The researchers’ placenta-on-a-chip is a clear silicone device with two parallel microfluidic channels separated by a porous membrane. On one side of those pores, trophoblast cells, which are found at the placental interface with maternal blood, are grown. On the other side are endothelial cells, found on the interior of fetal blood vessels. The layers of those two cell types mimic the placental barrier, the gatekeeper between the maternal and fetal circulatory systems.

“That barrier,” Blundell said, “mediates all transport between mother and fetus during pregnancy. Nutrients, but also foreign agents like viruses, need to be either transported by that barrier or stopped.”

“One of the most important function of the placental barrier is transport,” Huh said, “so it’s essential for us to mimic that functionality.”

In 2013, Huh and his collaborators at Seoul National University conducted a preliminary study to create a microfluidic device for culturing trophoblast cells and fetal endothelial cells. This model, however, lacked the ability to form physiological placental tissue and accurately simulate transport function of the placental barrier.

In their new study, the Penn researchers have demonstrated that the two layers of cells continue to grow and develop while inside the chip, undergoing a process known as “syncytialization.”

“The placental cells change over the course of pregnancy,” Huh said. “During pregnancy, the placental trophoblast cells actually fuse with one another to form an interesting tissue called syncytium. The barrier also becomes thinner as the pregnancy progresses, and with our new model we’re able to reproduce this change.

“This process is very important because it affects placental transport and was a critical aspect not represented in our previous model.”

The Penn team validated the new model by showing glucose transfer rates across this syncytialized barrier matched those measured in perfusion studies of donated human placentae.

While useful in providing this type of baseline, donated placental tissue can be problematic for doing many of the types of studies necessary for fully understanding the structure and function of the placenta, especially as it pertains to diseases and disorders.

“The placenta is arguably the least understood organ in the human body,” Huh said, “and much remains to be learned about how transport between mother and fetus works at the tissue, cellular and molecular levels. An isolated whole organ is an not ideal platform for these types of mechanistic studies.”

“Beyond the scarcity of samples,” Blundell said, “there’s a limited lifespan of how long the tissue remains viable, for only a few hours after delivery, and the system that is used to perfuse the tissue and perform transport studies is complex.”

While the placenta-on-a-chip is still in the early stages of testing, researchers at Penn and beyond are already planning to use it in studies on preterm birth.

“This effort,” Parry said, “was part of the much larger Prematurity Research Center here at Penn, one of five centers around the country funded by the March of Dimes to study the causes of preterm birth. The rate of preterm birth is about 10 to 11 percent of all pregnancies. That rate has not been decreasing, and interventions to prevent preterm birth have been largely unsuccessful.”

As part of a $10 million grant from the March of Dimes that established the Center, Parry and his colleagues research metabolic changes that may be associated with preterm birth using in vitro placental cell lines and ex vivo placental tissue. The grant also supported their work with the Huh lab to develop new tools that could model preterm birth-associated placental dysfunction and inform such research efforts.

“Since publishing this paper,” Samuel Parry said, “we’ve reached out to the principal investigators at the other four March of Dimes sites and offered to provide them this model to use in their experiments.”

“Eventually,” Huh said, “we hope to leverage the unique capabilities of our model to demonstrate the potential of organ-on-a-chip technology as a new strategy to innovate basic and translational research in reproductive biology and medicine.”

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

A microphysiological model of the human placental barrier by Cassidy Blundell, Emily R. Tess, Ariana S. R. Schanzer, Christos Coutifaris, Emily J. Su, Samuel Parry. and Dongeun Huh. Lab Chip, 2016, Advance Article DOI: 10.1039/C6LC00259E First published online 20 May 2016

I believe this paper is behind a paywall.

One final note, I thought this was a really well written news release.

Not exactly ‘Prey’: self-organizing materials that can mimic swarm behaviour

Prey, a 2002 novel by Michael Crichton, focused on nanotechnology and other emerging technologies and how their development could lead to unleashing swarms of nanobots with agendas of their own. Crichton’s swarms had collective artificial intelligence, and could massive themselves together to take on different macroscale shapes to achieve their own ends. This latest development has nowhere near that potential—not yet and probably never. From a July 21, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily,

A new study by an international team of researchers, affiliated with Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology (UNIST) [Korea] has announced that they have succeeded in demonstarting control over the interactions occurring among microscopic spheres, which cause them to self-propel into swarms, chains, and clusters.

The research published in the current online edition of Nature Materials takes lessons from cooperation in nature, including that observed in honey bee swarms and bacterial clusters. In the study, the team has successfully demonstrated the self-organizing pattern formation in active materials at microscale by modifying only one parameter.

A July 21, 2016 UNIST press release, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

This breakthrough comes from a research, conducted by Dr. Steve Granick (School of Natural Science, UNIST) of IBS Center for Soft and Living Matter in collaboration with Dr. Erik Luijten from Northwestern University. Ming Han, a PhD student in Luijten’s laboratory, and Jing Yan, a former graduate student at the University of Illinois, served as co-first authors of the paper.

Researchers expect that such active particles could open a new class of technologies with applications in medicine, chemistry, and engineering as well as advance scientists’ fundamental understanding of collective, dynamic behavior in systems.

According to the research team, the significance of team work was stressed by both Dr. Luijten and Dr. Granick as this current breakthrough is part of a longtime partnership using a new class of soft-matter particles known as Janus colloids, which Dr. Granick had earlier created in his laboratory. The theoretical computer simulations were completed by the team, led by Dr. Luijten and Dr. Granick used these colloids to experimentally test the collective, dynamic behavior in the laboratory.

The micron-sized spheres, typically suspended in solution, were named after the Roman god with two faces as they have attractive interactions on one side and negative charges on the other side.

The electrostatic interactions between the two sides of the self-propelled spheres could be manipulated by subjecting the colloids to an electric field. Some experienced stronger repulsions between their forward-facing sides, while others went through the opposite. Along with them, another set remained completely neutral. This imbalance caused the self-propelled particles to swim and self-organize into one of the following patterns, which are swarms, chains, clusters and isotropic gases.

To avoid head-to-head collisions, head-repulsive particles swam side-by-side, forming into swarms. Depending on the electric-field frequency, tail-repulsive particles positioned their tails apart, thus encouraging them to face each other to form jammed clusters of high local density. Also, swimmers with equal-and-opposite charges attracted one another into connected chains.

Dr. Granick states, “This truly is a joint work of the technological know-how by the Korean IBS and the University of Illinois, as well as the computer simulations technology by Northwestern University.” He expects that this breakthrough has probable application in sensing, drug delivery, or even microrobotics.

With this discovery, a drug could be placed within particles, for instance, that cluster into the delivery spot. Moreover, alterations in the environment could be perceived if the system unexpectedly switches from swarming to forming chains.

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

Reconfiguring active particles by electrostatic imbalance by Jing Yan, Ming Han, Jie Zhang, Cong Xu, Erik Luijten, & Steve Granick. Nature Materials (2016)  doi:10.1038/nmat4696 Published online 11 July 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.

Sutures that can gather data wirelessly

Are sutures which gather data hackable? It’s a little early to start thinking about that issue as this seems to be brand new research. A July 18, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily tells more,

For the first time, researchers led by Tufts University engineers have integrated nano-scale sensors, electronics and microfluidics into threads — ranging from simple cotton to sophisticated synthetics — that can be sutured through multiple layers of tissue to gather diagnostic data wirelessly in real time, according to a paper published online July 18 [2016] in Microsystems & Nanoengineering. The research suggests that the thread-based diagnostic platform could be an effective substrate for a new generation of implantable diagnostic devices and smart wearable systems.

A July 18, 2016 Tufts University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail,

The researchers used a variety of conductive threads that were dipped in physical and chemical sensing compounds and connected to wireless electronic circuitry to create a flexible platform that they sutured into tissue in rats as well as in vitro. The threads collected data on tissue health (e.g. pressure, stress, strain and temperature), pH and glucose levels that can be used to determine such things as how a wound is healing, whether infection is emerging, or whether the body’s chemistry is out of balance. The results were transmitted wirelessly to a cell phone and computer.

The three-dimensional platform is able to conform to complex structures such as organs, wounds or orthopedic implants.

While more study is needed in a number of areas, including investigation of long-term biocompatibility, researchers said initial results raise the possibility of optimizing patient-specific treatments.

“The ability to suture a thread-based diagnostic device intimately in a tissue or organ environment in three dimensions adds a unique feature that is not available with other flexible diagnostic platforms,” said Sameer Sonkusale, Ph.D., corresponding author on the paper and director of the interdisciplinary Nano Lab in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Tufts School of Engineering. “We think thread-based devices could potentially be used as smart sutures for surgical implants, smart bandages to monitor wound healing, or integrated with textile or fabric as personalized health monitors and point-of-care diagnostics.”

Until now, the structure of substrates for implantable devices has essentially been two-dimensional, limiting their usefulness to flat tissue such as skin, according to the paper. Additionally, the materials in those substrates are expensive and require specialized processing.

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

A toolkit of thread-based microfluidics, sensors, and electronics for 3D tissue embedding for medical diagnostics by Pooria Mostafalu, Mohsen Akbari, Kyle A. Alberti, Qiaobing Xu, Ali Khademhosseini, & Sameer R. Sonkusale. Microsystems & Nanoengineering 2, Article number: 16039 (2016) doi:10.1038/micronano.2016.39 Published online 18 July 2016

This paper is open access.

Osmotic power: electricity generated with water, salt and a 3-atoms-thick membrane

EPFL researchers have developed a system that generates electricity from osmosis with unparalleled efficiency. Their work, featured in “Nature”, uses seawater, fresh water, and a new type of membrane just three atoms thick.

A July 13, 2016 news item on Nanowerk highlights  research on osmotic power at École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL; Switzerland),

Proponents of clean energy will soon have a new source to add to their existing array of solar, wind, and hydropower: osmotic power. Or more specifically, energy generated by a natural phenomenon occurring when fresh water comes into contact with seawater through a membrane.

Researchers at EPFL’s Laboratory of Nanoscale Biology have developed an osmotic power generation system that delivers never-before-seen yields. Their innovation lies in a three atoms thick membrane used to separate the two fluids. …

A July 14, 2016 EPFL press release (also on EurekAlert but published July 13, 2016), which originated the news item, describes the research,

The concept is fairly simple. A semipermeable membrane separates two fluids with different salt concentrations. Salt ions travel through the membrane until the salt concentrations in the two fluids reach equilibrium. That phenomenon is precisely osmosis.

If the system is used with seawater and fresh water, salt ions in the seawater pass through the membrane into the fresh water until both fluids have the same salt concentration. And since an ion is simply an atom with an electrical charge, the movement of the salt ions can be harnessed to generate electricity.

A 3 atoms thick, selective membrane that does the job

EPFL’s system consists of two liquid-filled compartments separated by a thin membrane made of molybdenum disulfide. The membrane has a tiny hole, or nanopore, through which seawater ions pass into the fresh water until the two fluids’ salt concentrations are equal. As the ions pass through the nanopore, their electrons are transferred to an electrode – which is what is used to generate an electric current.

Thanks to its properties the membrane allows positively-charged ions to pass through, while pushing away most of the negatively-charged ones. That creates voltage between the two liquids as one builds up a positive charge and the other a negative charge. This voltage is what causes the current generated by the transfer of ions to flow.

“We had to first fabricate and then investigate the optimal size of the nanopore. If it’s too big, negative ions can pass through and the resulting voltage would be too low. If it’s too small, not enough ions can pass through and the current would be too weak,” said Jiandong Feng, lead author of the research.

What sets EPFL’s system apart is its membrane. In these types of systems, the current increases with a thinner membrane. And EPFL’s membrane is just a few atoms thick. The material it is made of – molybdenum disulfide – is ideal for generating an osmotic current. “This is the first time a two-dimensional material has been used for this type of application,” said Aleksandra Radenovic, head of the laboratory of Nanoscale Biology

Powering 50’000 energy-saving light bulbs with 1m2 membrane

The potential of the new system is huge. According to their calculations, a 1m2 membrane with 30% of its surface covered by nanopores should be able to produce 1MW of electricity – or enough to power 50,000 standard energy-saving light bulbs. And since molybdenum disulfide (MoS2) is easily found in nature or can be grown by chemical vapor deposition, the system could feasibly be ramped up for large-scale power generation. The major challenge in scaling-up this process is finding out how to make relatively uniform pores.

Until now, researchers have worked on a membrane with a single nanopore, in order to understand precisely what was going on. ” From an engineering perspective, single nanopore system is ideal to further our fundamental understanding of 8=-based processes and provide useful information for industry-level commercialization”, said Jiandong Feng.

The researchers were able to run a nanotransistor from the current generated by a single nanopore and thus demonstrated a self-powered nanosystem. Low-power single-layer MoS2 transistors were fabricated in collaboration with Andras Kis’ team at at EPFL, while molecular dynamics simulations were performed by collaborators at University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign

Harnessing the potential of estuaries

EPFL’s research is part of a growing trend. For the past several years, scientists around the world have been developing systems that leverage osmotic power to create electricity. Pilot projects have sprung up in places such as Norway, the Netherlands, Japan, and the United States to generate energy at estuaries, where rivers flow into the sea. For now, the membranes used in most systems are organic and fragile, and deliver low yields. Some systems use the movement of water, rather than ions, to power turbines that in turn produce electricity.

Once the systems become more robust, osmotic power could play a major role in the generation of renewable energy. While solar panels require adequate sunlight and wind turbines adequate wind, osmotic energy can be produced just about any time of day or night – provided there’s an estuary nearby.

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

Single-layer MoS2 nanopores as nanopower generators by Jiandong Feng, Michael Graf, Ke Liu, Dmitry Ovchinnikov, Dumitru Dumcenco, Mohammad Heiranian, Vishal Nandigana, Narayana R. Aluru, Andras Kis, & Aleksandra Radenovic. Nature (2016)  doi:10.1038/nature18593 Published online 13 July 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.

Robots, Dallas (US), ethics, and killing

I’ve waited a while before posting this piece in the hope that the situation would calm. Sadly, it took longer than hoped as there was an additional shooting incident of police officers in Baton Rouge on July 17, 2016. There’s more about that shooting in a July 18, 2016 news posting by Steve Visser for CNN.)

Finally: Robots, Dallas, ethics, and killing: In the wake of the Thursday, July 7, 2016 shooting in Dallas (Texas, US) and subsequent use of a robot armed with a bomb to kill  the suspect, a discussion about ethics has been raised.

This discussion comes at a difficult period. In the same week as the targeted shooting of white police officers in Dallas, two African-American males were shot and killed in two apparently unprovoked shootings by police. The victims were Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana on Tuesday, July 5, 2016 and, Philando Castile in Minnesota on Wednesday, July 6, 2016. (There’s more detail about the shootings prior to Dallas in a July 7, 2016 news item on CNN.) The suspect in Dallas, Micah Xavier Johnson, a 25-year-old African-American male had served in the US Army Reserve and been deployed in Afghanistan (there’s more in a July 9, 2016 news item by Emily Shapiro, Julia Jacobo, and Stephanie Wash for abcnews.go.com). All of this has taken place within the context of a movement started in 2013 in the US, Black Lives Matter.

Getting back to robots, most of the material I’ve seen about ‘killing or killer’ robots has so far involved industrial accidents (very few to date) and ethical issues for self-driven cars (see a May 31, 2016 posting by Noah J. Goodall on the IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] Spectrum website).

The incident in Dallas is apparently the first time a US police organization has used a robot as a bomb, although it has been an occasional practice by US Armed Forces in combat situations. Rob Lever in a July 8, 2016 Agence France-Presse piece on phys.org focuses on the technology aspect,

The “bomb robot” killing of a suspected Dallas shooter may be the first lethal use of an automated device by American police, and underscores growing role of technology in law enforcement.

Regardless of the methods in Dallas, the use of robots is expected to grow, to handle potentially dangerous missions in law enforcement and the military.

Researchers at Florida International University meanwhile have been working on a TeleBot that would allow disabled police officers to control a humanoid robot.

The robot, described in some reports as similar to the “RoboCop” in films from 1987 and 2014, was designed “to look intimidating and authoritative enough for citizens to obey the commands,” but with a “friendly appearance” that makes it “approachable to citizens of all ages,” according to a research paper.

Robot developers downplay the potential for the use of automated lethal force by the devices, but some analysts say debate on this is needed, both for policing and the military.

A July 9, 2016 Associated Press piece by Michael Liedtke and Bree Fowler on phys.org focuses more closely on ethical issues raised by the Dallas incident,

When Dallas police used a bomb-carrying robot to kill a sniper, they also kicked off an ethical debate about technology’s use as a crime-fighting weapon.

The strategy opens a new chapter in the escalating use of remote and semi-autonomous devices to fight crime and protect lives. It also raises new questions over when it’s appropriate to dispatch a robot to kill dangerous suspects instead of continuing to negotiate their surrender.

“If lethally equipped robots can be used in this situation, when else can they be used?” says Elizabeth Joh, a University of California at Davis law professor who has followed U.S. law enforcement’s use of technology. “Extreme emergencies shouldn’t define the scope of more ordinary situations where police may want to use robots that are capable of harm.”

In approaching the question about the ethics, Mike Masnick’s July 8, 2016 posting on Techdirt provides a surprisingly sympathetic reading for the Dallas Police Department’s actions, as well as, asking some provocative questions about how robots might be better employed by police organizations (Note: Links have been removed),

The Dallas Police have a long history of engaging in community policing designed to de-escalate situations, rather than encourage antagonism between police and the community, have been handling all of this with astounding restraint, frankly. Many other police departments would be lashing out, and yet the Dallas Police Dept, while obviously grieving for a horrible situation, appear to be handling this tragic situation professionally. And it appears that they did everything they could in a reasonable manner. They first tried to negotiate with Johnson, but after that failed and they feared more lives would be lost, they went with the robot + bomb option. And, obviously, considering he had already shot many police officers, I don’t think anyone would question the police justification if they had shot Johnson.

But, still, at the very least, the whole situation raises a lot of questions about the legality of police using a bomb offensively to blow someone up. And, it raises some serious questions about how other police departments might use this kind of technology in the future. The situation here appears to be one where people reasonably concluded that this was the most effective way to stop further bloodshed. And this is a police department with a strong track record of reasonable behavior. But what about other police departments where they don’t have that kind of history? What are the protocols for sending in a robot or drone to kill someone? Are there any rules at all?

Furthermore, it actually makes you wonder, why isn’t there a focus on using robots to de-escalate these situations? What if, instead of buying military surplus bomb robots, there were robots being designed to disarm a shooter, or detain him in a manner that would make it easier for the police to capture him alive? Why should the focus of remote robotic devices be to kill him? This isn’t faulting the Dallas Police Department for its actions last night. But, rather, if we’re going to enter the age of robocop, shouldn’t we be looking for ways to use such robotic devices in a manner that would help capture suspects alive, rather than dead?

Gordon Corera’s July 12, 2016 article on the BBC’s (British Broadcasting Corporation) news website provides an overview of the use of automation and of ‘killing/killer robots’,

Remote killing is not new in warfare. Technology has always been driven by military application, including allowing killing to be carried out at distance – prior examples might be the introduction of the longbow by the English at Crecy in 1346, then later the Nazi V1 and V2 rockets.

More recently, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones such as the Predator and the Reaper have been used by the US outside of traditional military battlefields.

Since 2009, the official US estimate is that about 2,500 “combatants” have been killed in 473 strikes, along with perhaps more than 100 non-combatants. Critics dispute those figures as being too low.

Back in 2008, I visited the Creech Air Force Base in the Nevada desert, where drones are flown from.

During our visit, the British pilots from the RAF deployed their weapons for the first time.

One of the pilots visibly bristled when I asked him if it ever felt like playing a video game – a question that many ask.

The military uses encrypted channels to control its ordnance disposal robots, but – as any hacker will tell you – there is almost always a flaw somewhere that a determined opponent can find and exploit.

We have already seen cars being taken control of remotely while people are driving them, and the nightmare of the future might be someone taking control of a robot and sending a weapon in the wrong direction.

The military is at the cutting edge of developing robotics, but domestic policing is also a different context in which greater separation from the community being policed risks compounding problems.

The balance between risks and benefits of robots, remote control and automation remain unclear.

But Dallas suggests that the future may be creeping up on us faster than we can debate it.

The excerpts here do not do justice to the articles, if you’re interested in this topic and have the time, I encourage you to read all the articles cited here in their entirety.

*(ETA: July 25, 2016 at 1405 hours PDT: There is a July 25, 2016 essay by Carrie Sheffield for Salon.com which may provide some insight into the Black Lives matter movement and some of the generational issues within the US African-American community as revealed by the movement.)*

Using light to make gold crystal nanoparticles

Gold crystal nanoparticles? Courtesy: University of Florida

Gold crystal nanoparticles? Courtesy: University of Florida

A team from the University of Florida has used gold instead of silver in a process known as plasmon-driven synthesis. From a July 8, 2016 news item on phys.org,

A team of University of Florida researchers has figured out how gold can be used in crystals grown by light to create nanoparticles, a discovery that has major implications for industry and cancer treatment and could improve the function of pharmaceuticals, medical equipment and solar panels.

A July 6, 2016 University of Florida news release, which originated the news item, provides more detail,

Nanoparticles can be “grown” in crystal formations with special use of light, in a process called plasmon-driven synthesis. However, scientists have had limited control unless they used silver, but silver limits the uses for medical technology. The team is the first to successfully use gold, which works well within the human body, with this process.

“How does light actually play a role in the synthesis? [This knowledge] was not well developed,” said David Wei, an associate professor of chemistry who led the research team. “Gold was the model system to demonstrate this.”

Gold is highly desired for nanotechnology because it is malleable, does not react with oxygen and conducts heat well. Those properties make gold an ideal material for nanoparticles, especially those that will be placed in the body.

When polyvinylpyrrolidone, or PVP, a substance commonly found in pharmaceutical tablets, is used in the plasmon-driven synthesis, it enables scientists to better control the growth of crystals. In Wei’s research, PVP surprised the team by showing its potential to relay light-generated “hot” electrons to a gold surface to grow the crystals.

The research describes the first plasmonic synthesis strategy that can make high-yield gold nanoprisms. Even more exciting, the team has demonstrated that visible-range and low-power light can be used in the synthesis. Combined with nanoparticles being used in solar photovoltaic devices, this method can even harness solar energy for chemical synthesis, to make nanomaterials or for general applications in chemistry.

Wei has spent the last decade working in nanotechnology. He is intrigued by its applications in photochemistry and biomedicine, especially in targeted drug delivery and photothermal therapeutics, which is crucial to cancer treatment. His team includes collaborators from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, where he has worked as a visiting scholar, and Brookhaven National Laboratory. In addition, the project has provided an educational opportunity for chemistry students: one high school student (through UF’s Student Science Training Program), two University scholars who also [sic] funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, five graduate students and two postdocs.

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

Polyvinylpyrrolidone-induced anisotropic growth of gold nanoprisms in plasmon-driven synthesis by Yueming Zhai, Joseph S. DuChene, Yi-Chung Wang, Jingjing Qiu, Aaron C. Johnston-Peck, Bo You, Wenxiao Guo, Benedetto DiCiaccio, Kun Qian, Evan W. Zhao, Frances Ooi, Dehong Hu, Dong Su, Eric A. Stach, Zihua Zhu, & Wei David Wei. Nature Materials (2016) doi:10.1038/nmat4683 Published online 04 July 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.