Tag Archives: US National Science Foundation

US white paper on neuromorphic computing (or the nanotechnology-inspired Grand Challenge for future computing)

The US has embarked on a number of what is called “Grand Challenges.” I first came across the concept when reading about the Bill and Melinda Gates (of Microsoft fame) Foundation. I gather these challenges are intended to provide funding for research that advances bold visions.

There is the US National Strategic Computing Initiative established on July 29, 2015 and its first anniversary results were announced one year to the day later. Within that initiative a nanotechnology-inspired Grand Challenge for Future Computing was issued and, according to a July 29, 2016 news item on Nanowerk, a white paper on the topic has been issued (Note: A link has been removed),

Today [July 29, 2016), Federal agencies participating in the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) released a white paper (pdf) describing the collective Federal vision for the emerging and innovative solutions needed to realize the Nanotechnology-Inspired Grand Challenge for Future Computing.

The grand challenge, announced on October 20, 2015, is to “create a new type of computer that can proactively interpret and learn from data, solve unfamiliar problems using what it has learned, and operate with the energy efficiency of the human brain.” The white paper describes the technical priorities shared by the agencies, highlights the challenges and opportunities associated with these priorities, and presents a guiding vision for the research and development (R&D) needed to achieve key technical goals. By coordinating and collaborating across multiple levels of government, industry, academia, and nonprofit organizations, the nanotechnology and computer science communities can look beyond the decades-old approach to computing based on the von Neumann architecture and chart a new path that will continue the rapid pace of innovation beyond the next decade.

A July 29, 2016 US National Nanotechnology Coordination Office news release, which originated the news item, further and succinctly describes the contents of the paper,

“Materials and devices for computing have been and will continue to be a key application domain in the field of nanotechnology. As evident by the R&D topics highlighted in the white paper, this challenge will require the convergence of nanotechnology, neuroscience, and computer science to create a whole new paradigm for low-power computing with revolutionary, brain-like capabilities,” said Dr. Michael Meador, Director of the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office. …

The white paper was produced as a collaboration by technical staff at the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Intelligence Community. …

The white paper titled “A Federal Vision for Future Computing: A Nanotechnology-Inspired Grand Challenge” is 15 pp. and it offers tidbits such as this (Note: Footnotes not included),

A new materials base may be needed for future electronic hardware. While most of today’s electronics use silicon, this approach is unsustainable if billions of disposable and short-lived sensor nodes are needed for the coming Internet-of-Things (IoT). To what extent can the materials base for the implementation of future information technology (IT) components and systems support sustainability through recycling and bio-degradability? More sustainable materials, such as compostable or biodegradable systems (polymers, paper, etc.) that can be recycled or reused,  may play an important role. The potential role for such alternative materials in the fabrication of integrated systems needs to be explored as well. [p. 5]

The basic architecture of computers today is essentially the same as those built in the 1940s—the von Neumann architecture—with separate compute, high-speed memory, and high-density storage components that are electronically interconnected. However, it is well known that continued performance increases using this architecture are not feasible in the long term, with power density constraints being one of the fundamental roadblocks.7 Further advances in the current approach using multiple cores, chip multiprocessors, and associated architectures are plagued by challenges in software and programming models. Thus,  research and development is required in radically new and different computing architectures involving processors, memory, input-output devices, and how they behave and are interconnected. [p. 7]

Neuroscience research suggests that the brain is a complex, high-performance computing system with low energy consumption and incredible parallelism. A highly plastic and flexible organ, the human brain is able to grow new neurons, synapses, and connections to cope with an ever-changing environment. Energy efficiency, growth, and flexibility occur at all scales, from molecular to cellular, and allow the brain, from early to late stage, to never stop learning and to act with proactive intelligence in both familiar and novel situations. Understanding how these mechanisms work and cooperate within and across scales has the potential to offer tremendous technical insights and novel engineering frameworks for materials, devices, and systems seeking to perform efficient and autonomous computing. This research focus area is the most synergistic with the national BRAIN Initiative. However, unlike the BRAIN Initiative, where the goal is to map the network connectivity of the brain, the objective here is to understand the nature, methods, and mechanisms for computation,  and how the brain performs some of its tasks. Even within this broad paradigm,  one can loosely distinguish between neuromorphic computing and artificial neural network (ANN) approaches. The goal of neuromorphic computing is oriented towards a hardware approach to reverse engineering the computational architecture of the brain. On the other hand, ANNs include algorithmic approaches arising from machinelearning,  which in turn could leverage advancements and understanding in neuroscience as well as novel cognitive, mathematical, and statistical techniques. Indeed, the ultimate intelligent systems may as well be the result of merging existing ANN (e.g., deep learning) and bio-inspired techniques. [p. 8]

As government documents go, this is quite readable.

For anyone interested in learning more about the future federal plans for computing in the US, there is a July 29, 2016 posting on the White House blog celebrating the first year of the US National Strategic Computing Initiative Strategic Plan (29 pp. PDF; awkward but that is the title).

Nanoparticles for breaking up plaque and preventing cavities

There may be iron in your tooth care future if a team of researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have their way. From a July 26, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily,

The bacteria that live in dental plaque and contribute to tooth decay often resist traditional antimicrobial treatment, as they can “hide” within a sticky biofilm matrix, a glue-like polymer scaffold.

A new strategy conceived by University of Pennsylvania researchers took a more sophisticated approach. Instead of simply applying an antibiotic to the teeth, they took advantage of the pH-sensitive and enzyme-like properties of iron-containing nanoparticles to catalyze the activity of hydrogen peroxide, a commonly used natural antiseptic. The activated hydrogen peroxide produced free radicals that were able to simultaneously degrade the biofilm matrix and kill the bacteria within, significantly reducing plaque and preventing the tooth decay, or cavities, in an animal model.

“Even using a very low concentration of hydrogen peroxide, the process was incredibly effective at disrupting the biofilm,” said Hyun (Michel) Koo, a professor in the Penn School of Dental Medicine’s Department of Orthodontics and divisions of Pediatric Dentistry and Community and Oral Health and the senior author of the study, which was published in the journal Biomaterials. “Adding nanoparticles increased the efficiency of bacterial killing more than 5,000-fold.”

A July 25, 2016 University of Pennsylvania news release, which originated the news item, describes the genesis of the work and provides more details about the current research (Note: A link has been removed),

The work built off a seminal finding by Gao [Lizeng Gao, a postdoctoral researcher in Koo’s lab] and colleagues, published in 2007 in Nature Nanotechnology, showing that nanoparticles, long believed to be biologically and chemically inert, could in fact possess enzyme-like properties. In that study, Gao showed that an iron oxide nanoparticle behaved similarly to a peroxidase, an enzyme found naturally that catalyzes oxidative reactions, often using hydrogen peroxide.

When Gao joined Koo’s lab in 2013, he proposed using these nanoparticles in an oral setting, as the oxidation of hydrogen peroxide produces free radicals that can kill bacteria.

“When he first presented it to me, I was very skeptical,” Koo said, “because these free radicals can also damage healthy tissue. But then he refuted that and told me this is different because the nanoparticles’ activity is dependent on pH.”

Gao had found that the nanoparticles had no catalytic activity at neutral or near-neutral pH of 6.5 or 7, physiological values typically found in blood or in a healthy mouth. But when pH was acidic, closer to 5, they become highly active and can rapidly produce free radicals.

The scenario was ideal for targeting plaque, which can produce an acidic microenvironment when exposed to sugars.

Gao and Koo reached out to Cormode [David Cormode, an assistant professor of radiology and bioengineering], who had experience working with iron oxide nanoparticles in a radiological imaging context, to help them synthesize, characterize and test the effectiveness of the nanoparticles, several forms of which are already FDA-approved for imaging in humans.

Beginning with in vitro studies, which involved growing a biofilm containing the cavity-causing bacteria Streptococcus mutans on a tooth-enamel-like surface and then exposing it to sugar, the researchers confirmed that the nanoparticles adhered to the biofilm, were retained even after treatment stopped and could effectively catalyze hydrogen peroxide in acidic conditions.

They also showed that the nanoparticles’ reaction with a 1 percent or less hydrogen peroxide solution was remarkably effective at killing bacteria, wiping out more than 99.9 percent of the S. mutans in the biofilm within five minutes, an efficacy more than 5,000 times greater than using hydrogen peroxide alone. Even more promising, they demonstrated that the treatment regimen, involving a 30-second topical treatment of the nanoparticles followed by a 30-second treatment with hydrogen peroxide, could break down the biofilm matrix components, essentially removing the protective sticky scaffold.

Moving to an animal model, they applied the nanoparticles and hydrogen peroxide topically to the teeth of rats, which can develop tooth decay when infected with S. mutans just as humans do. Twice-a-day, one-minute treatments for three weeks significantly reduced the onset and severity of carious lesions, the clinical term for tooth decay, compared to the control or treatment with hydrogen peroxide alone. The researchers observed no adverse effects on the gum or oral soft tissues from the treatment.

“It’s very promising,” said Koo. “The efficacy and toxicity need to be validated in clinical studies, but I think the potential is there.”

Among the attractive features of the platform is the fact that the components are relatively inexpensive.

“If you look at the amount you would need for a dose, you’re looking at something like 5 milligrams,” Cormode said. “It’s a tiny amount of material, and the nanoparticles are fairly easily synthesize, so we’re talking about a cost of cents per dose.”

In addition, the platform uses a concentration of hydrogen peroxide, 1 percent, which is lower than many currently available tooth-whitening systems that use 3 to 10 percent concentrations, minimizing the chance of negative side effects.

Looking ahead, Gao, Koo, Cormode and colleagues hope to continue refining and improving upon the effectiveness of the nanoparticle platform to fight biofilms.

“We’re studying the role of nanoparticle coatings, composition, size and so forth so we can engineer the particles for even better performance,” Cormode said.

The funding agencies provide a note of interest (Note: Links have been removed),

The study was funded by the International Association for Dental Research/GlaxoSmithKline Innovation in Oral Health Award, National Science Foundation and University of Pennsylvania Research Foundation.

Presumably the industry as represented by the GlaxoSmithKline Innovation in Oral Health Award is keeping a close eye on this work.

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

Nanocatalysts promote Streptococcus mutans biofilm matrix degradation and enhance bacterial killing to suppress dental caries in vivo by Lizeng Gao, Yuan Liu, Dongyeop Kim, Yong Li, Geelsu Hwang, Pratap C. Naha, David P. Cormode, & Hyun Koo. Biomaterials Volume 101, September 2016, Pages 272–284 doi:10.1016/j.biomaterials.2016.05.051

This paper is behind a paywall.

Synthetic biowire for nanoelectronics

Apparently this biowire derived by synthetic biology processes can make nanoelectronics a greener affair. From a July 14, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily,

Scientists at the University of Massachusetts Amherst report in the current issue of Small that they have genetically designed a new strain of bacteria that spins out extremely thin and highly conductive wires made up of solely of non-toxic, natural amino acids.

A July 14, 2016 University of Massachusetts at Amherst news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more information,

Researchers led by microbiologist Derek Lovley say the wires, which rival the thinnest wires known to man, are produced from renewable, inexpensive feedstocks and avoid the harsh chemical processes typically used to produce nanoelectronic materials.

Lovley says, “New sources of electronic materials are needed to meet the increasing demand for making smaller, more powerful electronic devices in a sustainable way.” The ability to mass-produce such thin conductive wires with this sustainable technology has many potential applications in electronic devices, functioning not only as wires, but also transistors and capacitors. Proposed applications include biocompatible sensors, computing devices, and as components of solar panels.

This advance began a decade ago, when Lovley and colleagues discovered that Geobacter, a common soil microorganism, could produce “microbial nanowires,” electrically conductive protein filaments that help the microbe grow on the iron minerals abundant in soil. These microbial nanowires were conductive enough to meet the bacterium’s needs, but their conductivity was well below the conductivities of organic wires that chemists could synthesize.

“As we learned more about how the microbial nanowires worked we realized that it might be possible to improve on Nature’s design,” says Lovley. “We knew that one class of amino acids was important for the conductivity, so we rearranged these amino acids to produce a synthetic nanowire that we thought might be more conductive.”

The trick they discovered to accomplish this was to introduce tryptophan, an amino acid not present in the natural nanowires. Tryptophan is a common aromatic amino acid notorious for causing drowsiness after eating Thanksgiving turkey. However, it is also highly effective at the nanoscale in transporting electrons.

“We designed a synthetic nanowire in which a tryptophan was inserted where nature had used a phenylalanine and put in another tryptophan for one of the tyrosines. We hoped to get lucky and that Geobacter might still form nanowires from this synthetic peptide and maybe double the nanowire conductivity,” says Lovley.

The results greatly exceeded the scientists’ expectations. They genetically engineered a strain of Geobacter and manufactured large quantities of the synthetic nanowires 2000 times more conductive than the natural biological product. An added bonus is that the synthetic nanowires, which Lovley refers to as “biowire,” had a diameter only half that of the natural product.

“We were blown away by this result,” says Lovley. The conductivity of biowire exceeds that of many types of chemically-produced organic nanowires with similar diameters. The extremely thin diameter of 1.5 nanometers (over 60,000 times thinner than a human hair) means that thousands of the wires can easily be packed into a very small space.

The added benefit is that making biowire does not require any of the dangerous chemicals that are needed for synthesis of other nanowires. Also, biowire contains no toxic components. “Geobacter can be grown on cheap renewable organic feedstocks so it is a very ‘green’ process,” he notes. And, although the biowire is made out of protein, it is extremely durable. In fact, Lovley’s lab had to work for months to establish a method to break it down.

“It’s quite an unusual protein,” Lovley says. “This may be just the beginning” he adds. Researchers in his lab recently produced more than 20 other Geobacter strains, each producing a distinct biowire variant with new amino acid combinations. He notes, “I am hoping that our initial success will attract more funding to accelerate the discovery process. We are hoping that we can modify biowire in other ways to expand its potential applications.”

As it often does, funding provides some notes of interest,

This research was supported by the Office of Naval Research, the National Science Foundation’s Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center and the UMass Amherst Center for Hierarchical Manufacturing.

Caption: Synthetic biowire are making an electrical connection between two electrodes. Researchers led by microbiologist Derek Lovely at UMass Amherst say the wires, which rival the thinnest wires known to man, are produced from renewable, inexpensive feedstocks and avoid the harsh chemical processes typically used to produce nanoelectronic materials. Credit: UMass Amherst

Caption: Synthetic biowire are making an electrical connection between two electrodes. Researchers led by microbiologist Derek Lovely at UMass Amherst say the wires, which rival the thinnest wires known to man, are produced from renewable, inexpensive feedstocks and avoid the harsh chemical processes typically used to produce nanoelectronic materials. Credit: UMass Amherst

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

Synthetic Biological Protein Nanowires with High Conductivity by Yang Tan, Ramesh Y. Adhikari, Nikhil S. Malvankar, Shuang Pi, Joy E. Ward, Trevor L. Woodard, Kelly P. Nevin, Qiangfei Xia, Mark T. Tuominen, and Derek R. Lovley. Small DOI: 10.1002/smll.201601112 Version of Record online: 13 JUL 2016

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

This paper is behind a paywall.

Artificial intelligence used for wildlife protection

PAWS (Protection Assistant for Wildlife Security), an artificial intelligence (AI) program, has been tested in Uganda and Malaysia. according to an April 22, 2016 US National Science Foundation (NSF) news release (also on EurekAlert but dated April 21, 2016), Note: Links have been removed,

A century ago, more than 60,000 tigers roamed the wild. Today, the worldwide estimate has dwindled to around 3,200. Poaching is one of the main drivers of this precipitous drop. Whether killed for skins, medicine or trophy hunting, humans have pushed tigers to near-extinction. The same applies to other large animal species like elephants and rhinoceros that play unique and crucial roles in the ecosystems where they live.

Human patrols serve as the most direct form of protection of endangered animals, especially in large national parks. However, protection agencies have limited resources for patrols.

With support from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Army Research Office, researchers are using artificial intelligence (AI) and game theory to solve poaching, illegal logging and other problems worldwide, in collaboration with researchers and conservationists in the U.S., Singapore, Netherlands and Malaysia.

“In most parks, ranger patrols are poorly planned, reactive rather than pro-active, and habitual,” according to Fei Fang, a Ph.D. candidate in the computer science department at the University of Southern California (USC).

Fang is part of an NSF-funded team at USC led by Milind Tambe, professor of computer science and industrial and systems engineering and director of the Teamcore Research Group on Agents and Multiagent Systems.

Their research builds on the idea of “green security games” — the application of game theory to wildlife protection. Game theory uses mathematical and computer models of conflict and cooperation between rational decision-makers to predict the behavior of adversaries and plan optimal approaches for containment. The Coast Guard and Transportation Security Administration have used similar methods developed by Tambe and others to protect airports and waterways.

“This research is a step in demonstrating that AI can have a really significant positive impact on society and allow us to assist humanity in solving some of the major challenges we face,” Tambe said.

PAWS puts the claws in anti-poaching

The team presented papers describing how they use their methods to improve the success of human patrols around the world at the AAAI Conference on Artificial Intelligence in February [2016].

The researchers first created an AI-driven application called PAWS (Protection Assistant for Wildlife Security) in 2013 and tested the application in Uganda and Malaysia in 2014. Pilot implementations of PAWS revealed some limitations, but also led to significant improvements.

Here’s a video describing the issues and PAWS,

For those who prefer to read about details rather listen, there’s more from the news release,

PAWS uses data on past patrols and evidence of poaching. As it receives more data, the system “learns” and improves its patrol planning. Already, the system has led to more observations of poacher activities per kilometer.

Its key technical advance lies in its ability to incorporate complex terrain information, including the topography of protected areas. That results in practical patrol routes that minimize elevation changes, saving time and energy. Moreover, the system can also take into account the natural transit paths that have the most animal traffic – and thus the most poaching – creating a “street map” for patrols.

“We need to provide actual patrol routes that can be practically followed,” Fang said. “These routes need to go back to a base camp and the patrols can’t be too long. We list all possible patrol routes and then determine which is most effective.”

The application also randomizes patrols to avoid falling into predictable patterns.

“If the poachers observe that patrols go to some areas more often than others, then the poachers place their snares elsewhere,” Fang said.

Since 2015, two non-governmental organizations, Panthera and Rimbat, have used PAWS to protect forests in Malaysia. The research won the Innovative Applications of Artificial Intelligence award for deployed application, as one of the best AI applications with measurable benefits.

The team recently combined PAWS with a new tool called CAPTURE (Comprehensive Anti-Poaching Tool with Temporal and Observation Uncertainty Reasoning) that predicts attacking probability even more accurately.

In addition to helping patrols find poachers, the tools may assist them with intercepting trafficked wildlife products and other high-risk cargo, adding another layer to wildlife protection. The researchers are in conversations with wildlife authorities in Uganda to deploy the system later this year. They will present their findings at the 15th International Conference on Autonomous Agents and Multiagent Systems (AAMAS 2016) in May.

“There is an urgent need to protect the natural resources and wildlife on our beautiful planet, and we computer scientists can help in various ways,” Fang said. “Our work on PAWS addresses one facet of the problem, improving the efficiency of patrols to combat poaching.”

There is yet another potential use for PAWS, the prevention of illegal logging,

While Fang and her colleagues work to develop effective anti-poaching patrol planning systems, other members of the USC team are developing complementary methods to prevent illegal logging, a major economic and environmental problem for many developing countries.

The World Wildlife Fund estimates trade in illegally harvested timber to be worth between $30 billion and $100 billion annually. The practice also threatens ancient forests and critical habitats for wildlife.

Researchers at USC, the University of Texas at El Paso and Michigan State University recently partnered with the non-profit organization Alliance Vohoary Gasy to limit the illegal logging of rosewood and ebony trees in Madagascar, which has caused a loss of forest cover on the island nation.

Forest protection agencies also face limited budgets and must cover large areas, making sound investments in security resources critical.

The research team worked to determine the balance of security resources in which Madagascar should invest to maximize protection, and to figure out how to best deploy those resources.

Past work in game theory-based security typically involved specified teams — the security workers assigned to airport checkpoints, for example, or the air marshals deployed on flight tours. Finding optimal security solutions for those scenarios is difficult; a solution involving an open-ended team had not previously been feasible.

To solve this problem, the researchers developed a new method called SORT (Simultaneous Optimization of Resource Teams) that they have been experimentally validating using real data from Madagascar.

The research team created maps of the national parks, modeled the costs of all possible security resources using local salaries and budgets, and computed the best combination of resources given these conditions.

“We compared the value of using an optimal team determined by our algorithm versus a randomly chosen team and the algorithm did significantly better,” said Sara Mc Carthy, a Ph.D. student in computer science at USC.

The algorithm is simple and fast, and can be generalized to other national parks with different characteristics. The team is working to deploy it in Madagascar in association with the Alliance Vohoary Gasy.

“I am very proud of what my PhD students Fei Fang and Sara Mc Carthy have accomplished in this research on AI for wildlife security and forest protection,” said Tambe, the team lead. “Interdisciplinary collaboration with practitioners in the field was key in this research and allowed us to improve our research in artificial intelligence.”

Moreover, the project shows other computer science researchers the potential impact of applying their research to the world’s problems.

“This work is not only important because of the direct beneficial impact that it has on the environment, protecting wildlife and forests, but on the way that it can inspire other to dedicate their efforts into making the world a better place,” Mc Carthy said.

The curious can find out more about Panthera here and about Alliance Vohoary Gasy here (be prepared to use your French language skills). Unfortunately, I could not find more information about Rimbat.

Results in for Generation Nano: Small Science, Superheroes contest

The Generation Nano: Small Science, Superheroes contest last mentioned in my March 31, 2016 posting has ended and the placement of the winners, in a field of three finalists, announced at the 2016 USA Science and Engineering Festival according to an April 18, 2016 US National Science Foundation news release,

On behalf of the National Science Foundation (NSF), actor Wil Wheaton and legendary superhero creator Stan Lee yesterday announced the winners of the Generation Nano: Small Science, Superheroescompetition, sponsored by NSF and the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI).

The competition challenged high school students to think big — or, in this case, small — to create superheroes that harness their powers from nanotechnology.

Wheaton applauded the students’ creative storylines, noting that when he was Wesley Crusher on the TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation, such plots were only imaginary. “It is amazing what is today plausible due to the power of nanotechnonlogy,” he said.

In a video introduction before Wheaton announced top prize winners, Stan Lee said it was “great that I can virtually join you today.” He remarked on the winners’ “creativity, ingenuity and initiative.”

“From one superhero storyteller to the next, congratulations,” Lee said.

The winners

  • First Prize: Eric Liu from Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Virginia, for his “Nanoman,” who fights the malignant crab-monster “Cancer.”
  • Second Prize and the People’s Choice Award: Madeleine Chang from Bergen County Academies in New Jersey, for her superhero “Radio Blitz,” who disposes of local waste.
  • Third Prize: Vuong Mai from Martha Ellen Stilwell School of the Arts in Georgia, for her protector “Nine,” who dons a nanosuit for strength to save a kidnapping victim.

All weekend, the students displayed their superheroes and described the nanoscience behind them to thousands of attendees at the 2016 USA Science & Engineering Festival in Washington, D.C.

“All three finalists immersed themselves in the worlds of nanotechnology and art, told a great story, entertained and educated — all at the same time,” said Lisa Friedersdorf, deputy director of the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office. “Their creations will surely motivate additional students to imagine and learn more about what is possible with nanotechnology.”

Top award winners in this competition show that with imagination and nanotechnology, possibilities abound, said Mihail C. Roco, NSF senior advisor for science and engineering and a key architect of NNI.

“These school students have aimed higher than ever in their lives, pushing their abilities in novel domains where seeds for their high-tech future may germinate,” Roco said. “We need a constant regeneration of new talent to exploit this general purpose science and technology field to its outstanding potential. These students are well on their way.”

Competition details

NSF and NNI challenges students to submit written entries explaining their superhero and nanotechnology-driven gear, along with a one-page comic or 90-second video. A panel of judges from academia and multimedia platforms selected semifinalists and finalists, from which the public selected Madeline Chang as its People’s Choice winner.

Top prizes were determined by judges Elise Lemle, director of special projects at Two Bit Circus; Lizabeth Fogel, director of Education for the Walt Disney Company and Chair of the Board for the Partnership for 21st Century Learning; and James Murday, director of physical sciences at the University of Southern California’s Washington, D.C., office of research advancement.

Visit the Generation Nano competition website for competition details such as eligibility criteria, entry guidelines, timeline, prizes and videos/comics from the finalists and semifinalists. And stay tuned for information on next year’s competition.

Here’s a photo of Wil Wheaton officiating at the ceremony,

Actor, writer and blogger Wil Wheaton hosted the Gen Nano competition award ceremony.

Actor, writer and blogger Wil Wheaton hosted the Gen Nano competition award ceremony. Courtesy of the NSF.

Honestly, this could be anyone but there are videos of the ceremony featuring Wil Wheaton, each of the winner’s pieces, and Stan Lee attending the ceremony virtually (five videos in all).

Embroidering electronics into clothing

Researchers at The Ohio State University are developing embroidered antennas and circuits with 0.1 mm precision—the perfect size to integrate electronic components such as sensors and computer memory devices into clothing. Photo by Jo McCulty, courtesy of The Ohio State University.

Researchers at The Ohio State University are developing embroidered antennas and circuits with 0.1 mm precision—the perfect size to integrate electronic components such as sensors and computer memory devices into clothing. Photo by Jo McCulty, courtesy of The Ohio State University.

An April 13, 2016 news item on Nanowerk describes an advance in the field of wearable electronics,

Researchers who are working to develop wearable electronics have reached a milestone: They are able to embroider circuits into fabric with 0.1 mm precision—the perfect size to integrate electronic components such as sensors and computer memory devices into clothing.

With this advance, the Ohio State University researchers have taken the next step toward the design of functional textiles—clothes that gather, store, or transmit digital information. With further development, the technology could lead to shirts that act as antennas for your smart phone or tablet, workout clothes that monitor your fitness level, sports equipment that monitors athletes’ performance, a bandage that tells your doctor how well the tissue beneath it is healing—or even a flexible fabric cap that senses activity in the brain.

That last item is one that John Volakis, director of the ElectroScience Laboratory at Ohio State, and research scientist Asimina Kiourti are investigating. The idea is to make brain implants, which are under development to treat conditions from epilepsy to addiction, more comfortable by eliminating the need for external wiring on the patient’s body.

An April 13, 2016 Ohio State University news release by Pam Frost Gorder, which originated the news item, expands on the theme (Note: Links have been removed),

“A revolution is happening in the textile industry,” said Volakis, who is also the Roy & Lois Chope Chair Professor of Electrical Engineering at Ohio State. “We believe that functional textiles are an enabling technology for communications and sensing—and one day even medical applications like imaging and health monitoring.”

Recently, he and Kiourti refined their patented fabrication method to create prototype wearables at a fraction of the cost and in half the time as they could only two years ago. With new patents pending, they published the new results in the journal IEEE Antennas and Wireless Propagation Letters.

In Volakis’ lab, the functional textiles, also called “e-textiles,” are created in part on a typical tabletop sewing machine—the kind that fabric artisans and hobbyists might have at home. Like other modern sewing machines, it embroiders thread into fabric automatically based on a pattern loaded via a computer file. The researchers substitute the thread with fine silver metal wires that, once embroidered, feel the same as traditional thread to the touch.

“We started with a technology that is very well known—machine embroidery—and we asked, how can we functionalize embroidered shapes? How do we make them transmit signals at useful frequencies, like for cell phones or health sensors?” Volakis said. “Now, for the first time, we’ve achieved the accuracy of printed metal circuit boards, so our new goal is to take advantage of the precision to incorporate receivers and other electronic components.”

The shape of the embroidery determines the frequency of operation of the antenna or circuit, explained Kiourti.

The shape of one broadband antenna, for instance, consists of more than half a dozen interlocking geometric shapes, each a little bigger than a fingernail, that form an intricate circle a few inches across. Each piece of the circle transmits energy at a different frequency, so that they cover a broad spectrum of energies when working together—hence the “broadband” capability of the antenna for cell phone and internet access.

“Shape determines function,” she said. “And you never really know what shape you will need from one application to the next. So we wanted to have a technology that could embroider any shape for any application.”

The researchers’ initial goal, Kiourti added, was just to increase the precision of the embroidery as much as possible, which necessitated working with fine silver wire. But that created a problem, in that fine wires couldn’t provide as much surface conductivity as thick wires. So they had to find a way to work the fine thread into embroidery densities and shapes that would boost the surface conductivity and, thus, the antenna/sensor performance.

Previously, the researchers had used silver-coated polymer thread with a 0.5-mm diameter, each thread made up of 600 even finer filaments twisted together. The new threads have a 0.1-mm diameter, made with only seven filaments. Each filament is copper at the center, enameled with pure silver.

They purchase the wire by the spool at a cost of 3 cents per foot; Kiourti estimated that embroidering a single broadband antenna like the one mentioned above consumes about 10 feet of thread, for a material cost of around 30 cents per antenna. That’s 24 times less expensive than when Volakis and Kiourti created similar antennas in 2014.

In part, the cost savings comes from using less thread per embroidery. The researchers previously had to stack the thicker thread in two layers, one on top of the other, to make the antenna carry a strong enough electrical signal. But by refining the technique that she and Volakis developed, Kiourti was able to create the new, high-precision antennas in only one embroidered layer of the finer thread. So now the process takes half the time: only about 15 minutes for the broadband antenna mentioned above.

She’s also incorporated some techniques common to microelectronics manufacturing to add parts to embroidered antennas and circuits.

One prototype antenna looks like a spiral and can be embroidered into clothing to improve cell phone signal reception. Another prototype, a stretchable antenna with an integrated RFID (radio-frequency identification) chip embedded in rubber, takes the applications for the technology beyond clothing. (The latter object was part of a study done for a tire manufacturer.)

Yet another circuit resembles the Ohio State Block “O” logo, with non-conductive scarlet and gray thread embroidered among the silver wires “to demonstrate that e-textiles can be both decorative and functional,” Kiourti said.

They may be decorative, but the embroidered antennas and circuits actually work. Tests showed that an embroidered spiral antenna measuring approximately six inches across transmitted signals at frequencies of 1 to 5 GHz with near-perfect efficiency. The performance suggests that the spiral would be well-suited to broadband internet and cellular communication.

In other words, the shirt on your back could help boost the reception of the smart phone or tablet that you’re holding – or send signals to your devices with health or athletic performance data.

The work fits well with Ohio State’s role as a founding partner of the Advanced Functional Fabrics of America Institute, a national manufacturing resource center for industry and government. The new institute, which joins some 50 universities and industrial partners, was announced earlier this month by U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter.

Syscom Advanced Materials in Columbus provided the threads used in Volakis and Kiourti’s initial work. The finer threads used in this study were purchased from Swiss manufacturer Elektrisola. The research is funded by the National Science Foundation, and Ohio State will license the technology for further development.

Until then, Volakis is making out a shopping list for the next phase of the project.

“We want a bigger sewing machine,” he said.

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

Fabrication of Textile Antennas and Circuits With 0.1 mm Precision by A. Kiourti, C. Lee, and J. L. Volakis.  IEEE Antennas and Wireless Propagation Letters (Volume:15 ) Page(s): 151 – 153 ISSN : 1536-1225 INSPEC Accession Number: 15785288 DOI: 10.1109/LAWP.2015.2435257 Date of Publication: 20 May 2015 Issue Date: 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.

$1.4B for US National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) in 2017 budget

According to an April 1, 2016 news item on Nanowerk, the US National Nanotechnology (NNI) has released its 2017 budget supplement,

The President’s Budget for Fiscal Year 2017 provides $1.4 billion for the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), affirming the important role that nanotechnology continues to play in the Administration’s innovation agenda. NNI
Cumulatively totaling nearly $24 billion since the inception of the NNI in 2001, the President’s 2017 Budget supports nanoscale science, engineering, and technology R&D at 11 agencies.

Another 9 agencies have nanotechnology-related mission interests or regulatory responsibilities.

An April 1, 2016 NNI news release, which originated the news item, affirms the Obama administration’s commitment to the NNI and notes the supplement serves as an annual report amongst other functions,

Throughout its two terms, the Obama Administration has maintained strong fiscal support for the NNI and has implemented new programs and activities to engage the broader nanotechnology community to support the NNI’s vision that the ability to understand and control matter at the nanoscale will lead to new innovations that will improve our quality of life and benefit society.

This Budget Supplement documents progress of these participating agencies in addressing the goals and objectives of the NNI. It also serves as the Annual Report for the NNI called for under the provisions of the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act of 2003 (Public Law 108-153, 15 USC §7501). The report also addresses the requirement for Department of Defense reporting on its nanotechnology investments, per 10 USC §2358.

For additional details and to view the full document, visit www.nano.gov/2017BudgetSupplement.

I don’t seem to have posted about the 2016 NNI budget allotment but 2017’s $1.4B represents a drop of $100M since 2015’s $1.5 allotment.

The 2017 NNI budget supplement describes the NNI’s main focus,

Over the past year, the NNI participating agencies, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), and the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office (NNCO) have been charting the future directions of the NNI, including putting greater focus on promoting commercialization and increasing education and outreach efforts to the broader nanotechnology community. As part of this effort, and in keeping with recommendations from the 2014 review of the NNI by the President’s Council of Advisors for Science and Technology, the NNI has been working to establish Nanotechnology-Inspired Grand Challenges, ambitious but achievable goals that will harness nanotechnology to solve National or global problems and that have the potential to capture the public’s imagination. Based upon inputs from NNI agencies and the broader community, the first Nanotechnology-Inspired Grand Challenge (for future computing) was announced by OSTP on October 20, 2015, calling for a collaborative effort to “create a new type of computer that can proactively interpret and learn from data, solve unfamiliar problems using what it has learned, and operate with the energy efficiency of the human brain.” This Grand Challenge has generated broad interest within the nanotechnology community—not only NNI agencies, but also industry, technical societies, and private foundations—and planning is underway to address how the agencies and the community will work together to achieve this goal. Topics for additional Nanotechnology-Inspired Grand Challenges are under review.

Interestingly, it also offers an explanation of the images on its cover (Note: Links have been removed),

US_NNI_2017_budget_cover

About the cover

Each year’s National Nanotechnology Initiative Supplement to the President’s Budget features cover images illustrating recent developments in nanotechnology stemming from NNI activities that have the potential to make major contributions to National priorities. The text below explains the significance of each of the featured images on this year’s cover.

US_NNI_2017_front_cover_CloseUp

Front cover featured images (above): Images illustrating three novel nanomedicine applications. Center: microneedle array for glucose-responsive insulin delivery imaged using fluorescence microscopy. This “smart insulin patch” is based on painless microneedles loaded with hypoxia-sensitive vesicles ~100 nm in diameter that release insulin in response to high glucose levels. Dr. Zhen Gu and colleagues at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University have demonstrated that this patch effectively regulates the blood glucose of type 1 diabetic mice with faster response than current pH-sensitive formulations. The inset image on the lower right shows the structure of the nanovesicles; each microneedle contains more than 100 million of these vesicles. The research was supported by the American Diabetes Association, the State of North Carolina, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the National Science Foundation (NSF). Left: colorized rendering of a candidate universal flu vaccine nanoparticle. The vaccine molecule, developed at the NIH Vaccine Research Center, displays only the conserved part of the viral spike and stimulates the production of antibodies to fight against the ever-changing flu virus. The vaccine is engineered from a ~13 nm ferritin core (blue) combined with a 7 nm influenza antigen (green). Image credit: NIH National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). Right: colorized scanning electron micrograph of Ebola virus particles on an infected VERO E6 cell. Blue represents individual Ebola virus particles. The image was produced by John Bernbaum and Jiro Wada at NIAID. When the Ebola outbreak struck in 2014, the Food and Drug Administration authorized emergency use of lateral flow immunoassays for Ebola detection that use gold nanoparticles for visual interpretation of the tests.

US_NNI_2017_back_cover._CloseUp

Back cover featured images (above): Images illustrating examples of NNI educational outreach activities. Center: Comic from the NSF/NNI competition Generation Nano: Small Science Superheroes. Illustration by Amina Khan, NSF. Left of Center: Polymer Nanocone Array (biomimetic of antimicrobial insect surface) by Kyle Nowlin, UNC-Greensboro, winner from the first cycle of the NNI’s student image contest, EnvisioNano. Right of Center: Gelatin Nanoparticles in Brain (nasal delivery of stroke medication to the brain) by Elizabeth Sawicki, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, winner from the second cycle of EnvisioNano. Outside right: still photo from the video Chlorination-less (water treatment method using reusable nanodiamond powder) by Abelardo Colon and Jennifer Gill, University of Puerto Rico at Rio Piedras, the winning video from the NNI’s Student Video Contest. Outside left: Society of Emerging NanoTechnologies (SENT) student group at the University of Central Florida, one of the initial nodes in the developing U.S. Nano and Emerging Technologies Student Network; photo by Alexis Vilaboy.

Vote for* winner for Generation Nano: Small Science, Superheroes

The US National Science Foundation’s (NSF) contest “Generation Nano: Small Science, Superheroes” for high school students has whittled down the entries to three finalists and bringing them to Washington, DC where the winner will announced at the 2016 USA Science & Engineering Festival (April 16 – 17, 2016) according to a March 30, 2016 NSF news release,

The National Science Foundation (NSF) today announced the names of three finalists in its Generation Nano: Small Science, Superheroes competition, sponsored by NSF and its National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) and supported by many, including superhero legend Stan Lee.

High school students Madeleine Chang from Bergen County Academies in New Jersey, Vuong Mai from Martha Ellen Stilwell School of the Arts in Georgia and Eric Liu from Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Virginia will come to Washington, D.C., to display their comics and compete for prizes at the 2016 USA Science & Engineering Festival in mid-April.

The competition drew submissions from all over the country. All responded to the call to think big — or in this case small — and use nanotechnology to empower their own original superheroes. Chang’s hero “Radio Blitz” disposes of local waste. Mai’s protector “Nine” dons a Nanosuit for strength to save a kidnapping victim. And Liu’s “Nanoman” fights the malignant crab-monster, “Cancer.”

“These three finalists tell a great story — all while they exemplify the combination of a sound technical basis for use of nanotechnology and artistic presentation,” said Lisa Friedersdorf, deputy director of the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office. “I think these comics will inspire other students to learn more about what is possible with nanotechnology.”

When it comes to applications for nanotechnology, “The possibilities abound,” said Mihail C. Roco, NSF senior advisor for science and engineering and key architect of NNI.

“Since these high school students were born, more discoveries have come from nanotechnology than any other field of science, with its discoveries penetrating all aspects of society — new industries, medicine, agriculture and the management of natural resources,” Roco said. “It is so exciting that these kids are getting in on the ground floor of progress. The competition inspires young people to dream high and create solutions in a way that may change their lives and those around them. We need this new talent; the future of emerging technologies, including nanotechnology depends on it.”

Those of us who cannot attend the festival, can vote online,

And remember to vote for your favorite from April 7 to 15.

*ETA March 31, 2016 at 1115 hours PDT: The vote link from the news release does not seem to be operational presumably since we the voting period doesn’t start until April 7, 2016.

Congratulations to the three finalists!

*’or’ switched to ‘for’  in the headline at 1110 hours PDT on March 31, 2016.

Sensing fuel leaks and fuel-based explosives with a nanofibril composite

A March 28, 2016 news item on Nanowerk highlights some research from the University of Utah (US),

Alkane fuel is a key ingredient in combustible material such as gasoline, airplane fuel, oil — even a homemade bomb. Yet it’s difficult to detect and there are no portable scanners available that can sniff out the odorless and colorless vapor.

But University of Utah engineers have developed a new type of fiber material for a handheld scanner that can detect small traces of alkane fuel vapor, a valuable advancement that could be an early-warning signal for leaks in an oil pipeline, an airliner, or for locating a terrorist’s explosive.

A March 25, 2016 University of Utah news release, which originated the news item, provides a little more detail,

Currently, there are no small, portable chemical sensors to detect alkane fuel vapor because it is not chemically reactive. The conventional way to detect it is with a large oven-sized instrument in a lab.

“It’s not mobile and very heavy,” Zang [Ling Zang, University of Utah materials science and engineering professor] says of the larger instrument. “There’s no way it can be used in the field. Imagine trying to detect the leak from a gas valve or on the pipelines. You ought to have something portable.”

So Zang’s team developed a type of fiber composite that involves two nanofibers transferring electrons from one to the other.

That kind of interaction would then signal the detector that the alkane vapor is present. Vaporsens, a University of Utah spinoff company, has designed a prototype of the handheld detector with an array of 16 sensor materials that will be able to identify a broad range of chemicals including explosives.  This new composite material will be incorporated into the sensor array to include the detection of alkanes. Vaporsens plans to introduce the device on the market in about a year and a half, says Zang, who is the company’s chief science officer.

Such a small sensor device that can detect alkane vapor will benefit three main categories:

  • Oil pipelines. If leaks from pipelines are not detected early enough, the resulting leaked oil could contaminate the local environment and water sources. Typically, only large leaks in pipelines can be detected if there is a drop in pressure. Zang’s portable sensor — when placed along the pipeline — could detect much smaller leaks before they become bigger.
  • Airplane fuel tanks. Fuel for aircraft is stored in removable “bladders” made of flexible fabric. The only way a leak can be detected is by seeing the dyed fuel seeping from the plane and then removing the bladder to inspect it. Zang’s sensors could be placed around the bladder to warn a pilot if a leak is occurring in real time and where it is located.
  • Security. The scanner will be designed to locate the presence of explosives such as bombs at airports or in other buildings. Many explosives, such as the bomb used in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, use fuel oils like diesel as one of its major components. These fuel oils are forms of alkane.

The research was funded by the Department of Homeland Security, National Science Foundation and NASA. The lead author of the paper is University of Utah materials science and engineering doctoral student Chen Wang, and [Benjamin] Bunes is the co-author.

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

Interfacial Donor–Acceptor Nanofibril Composites for Selective Alkane Vapor Detection by Chen Wang, Benjamin R. Bunes, Miao Xu, Na Wu, Xiaomei Yang, Dustin E. Gross, and Ling Zang. ACS Sens DOI: 10.1021/acssensors.6b00018 Publication Date (Web): March 09, 2016

Copyright © 2016 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

US Nanotechnology Initiative for water sustainability

Wednesday, March 23, 2016 was World Water Day and to coincide with that event the US National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) in collaboration with several other agencies announced a new ‘signature initiative’. From a March 24, 2016 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

As a part of the White House Water Summit held yesterday on World Water Day, the Federal agencies participating in the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) announced the launch of a Nanotechnology Signature Initiative (NSI), Water Sustainability through Nanotechnology: Nanoscale Solutions for a Global-Scale Challenge.

A March 23, 2016 NNI news release provides more information about why this initiative is important,

Access to clean water remains one of the world’s most pressing needs. As today’s White House Office of Science and Technology blog post explains, “the small size and exceptional properties of engineered nanomaterials are particularly promising for addressing the key technical challenges related to water quality and quantity.”

“One cannot find an issue more critical to human life and global security than clean, plentiful, and reliable water sources,” said Dr. Michael Meador, Director of the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office (NNCO). “Through the NSI mechanism, NNI member agencies will have an even greater ability to make meaningful strides toward this initiative’s thrust areas: increasing water availability, improving the efficiency of water delivery and use, and enabling next-generation water monitoring systems.”

A March 23, 2016 US White House blog posting by Lloyd Whitman and Lisa Friedersdorf describes the efforts in more detail (Note: A link has been removed),

The small size and exceptional properties of engineered nanomaterials are particularly promising for addressing the pressing technical challenges related to water quality and quantity. For example, the increased surface area—a cubic centimeter of nanoparticles has a surface area larger than a football field—and reactivity of nanometer-scale particles can be exploited to create catalysts for water purification that do not require rare or precious metals. And composites incorporating nanomaterials such as carbon nanotubes might one day enable stronger, lighter, and more durable piping systems and components. Under this NSI, Federal agencies will coordinate and collaborate to more rapidly develop nanotechnology-enabled solutions in three main thrusts: [thrust 1] increasing water availability; [thrust 2] improving the efficiency of water delivery and use; and [thrust 3] enabling next-generation water monitoring systems.

A technical “white paper” released by the agencies this week highlights key technical challenges for each thrust, identifies key objectives to overcome those challenges, and notes areas of research and development where nanotechnology promises to provide the needed solutions. By shining a spotlight on these areas, the new NSI will increase Federal coordination and collaboration, including with public and private stakeholders, which is vital to making progress in these areas. The additional focus and associated collective efforts will advance stewardship of water resources to support the essential food, energy, security, and environment needs of all stakeholders.

We applaud the commitment of the Federal agencies who will participate in this effort—the Department of Commerce/National Institute of Standards and Technology, Department of Energy, Environmental Protection Agency, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, National Science Foundation, and U.S. Department of Agriculture/National Institute of Food and Agriculture. As made clear at this week’s White House Water Summit, the world’s water systems are under tremendous stress, and new and emerging technologies will play a critical role in ensuring a sustainable water future.

The white paper (12 pp.) is titled: Water Sustainability through Nanotechnology: Nanoscale Solutions for a Global-Scale Challenge and describes the thrusts in more detail.

A March 22, 2016 US White House fact sheet lays out more details including funding,

Click here to learn more about all of the commitments and announcements being made today. They include:

  • Nearly $4 billion in private capital committed to investment in a broad range of water-infrastructure projects nationwide. This includes $1.5 billion from Ultra Capital to finance decentralized and scalable water-management solutions, and $500 million from Sustainable Water to develop water reclamation and reuse systems.
  • More than $1 billion from the private sector over the next decade to conduct research and development into new technologies. This includes $500 million from GE to fuel innovation, expertise, and global capabilities in advanced water, wastewater, and reuse technologies.
  • A Presidential Memorandum and supporting Action Plan on building national capabilities for long-term drought resilience in the United States, including by setting drought resilience policy goals, directing specific drought resilience activities to be completed by the end of the year, and permanently establishing the National Drought Resilience Partnership as an interagency task force responsible for coordinating drought-resilience, response, and recovery efforts.
  • Nearly $35 million this year in Federal grants from the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Science Foundation, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to support cutting-edge water science;
  • The release of a new National Water Model that will dramatically enhance the Nation’s river-forecasting capabilities by delivering forecasts for approximately 2.7 million locations, up from 4,000 locations today (a 700-fold increase in forecast density).

This seems promising and hopefully other countries will follow suit.