Tag Archives: US National Science Foundation

Powering up your graphene implants so you don’t get fried in the process

A Sept. 23, 2016 news item on phys.org describes a way of making graphene-based medical implants safer,

In the future, our health may be monitored and maintained by tiny sensors and drug dispensers, deployed within the body and made from graphene—one of the strongest, lightest materials in the world. Graphene is composed of a single sheet of carbon atoms, linked together like razor-thin chicken wire, and its properties may be tuned in countless ways, making it a versatile material for tiny, next-generation implants.

But graphene is incredibly stiff, whereas biological tissue is soft. Because of this, any power applied to operate a graphene implant could precipitously heat up and fry surrounding cells.

Now, engineers from MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] and Tsinghua University in Beijing have precisely simulated how electrical power may generate heat between a single layer of graphene and a simple cell membrane. While direct contact between the two layers inevitably overheats and kills the cell, the researchers found they could prevent this effect with a very thin, in-between layer of water.

A Sept. 23, 2016 MIT news release by Emily Chu, which originated the news item, provides more technical details,

By tuning the thickness of this intermediate water layer, the researchers could carefully control the amount of heat transferred between graphene and biological tissue. They also identified the critical power to apply to the graphene layer, without frying the cell membrane. …

Co-author Zhao Qin, a research scientist in MIT’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE), says the team’s simulations may help guide the development of graphene implants and their optimal power requirements.

“We’ve provided a lot of insight, like what’s the critical power we can accept that will not fry the cell,” Qin says. “But sometimes we might want to intentionally increase the temperature, because for some biomedical applications, we want to kill cells like cancer cells. This work can also be used as guidance [for those efforts.]”

Sandwich model

Typically, heat travels between two materials via vibrations in each material’s atoms. These atoms are always vibrating, at frequencies that depend on the properties of their materials. As a surface heats up, its atoms vibrate even more, causing collisions with other atoms and transferring heat in the process.

The researchers sought to accurately characterize the way heat travels, at the level of individual atoms, between graphene and biological tissue. To do this, they considered the simplest interface, comprising a small, 500-nanometer-square sheet of graphene and a simple cell membrane, separated by a thin layer of water.

“In the body, water is everywhere, and the outer surface of membranes will always like to interact with water, so you cannot totally remove it,” Qin says. “So we came up with a sandwich model for graphene, water, and membrane, that is a crystal clear system for seeing the thermal conductance between these two materials.”

Qin’s colleagues at Tsinghua University had previously developed a model to precisely simulate the interactions between atoms in graphene and water, using density functional theory — a computational modeling technique that considers the structure of an atom’s electrons in determining how that atom will interact with other atoms.

However, to apply this modeling technique to the group’s sandwich model, which comprised about half a million atoms, would have required an incredible amount of computational power. Instead, Qin and his colleagues used classical molecular dynamics — a mathematical technique based on a “force field” potential function, or a simplified version of the interactions between atoms — that enabled them to efficiently calculate interactions within larger atomic systems.

The researchers then built an atom-level sandwich model of graphene, water, and a cell membrane, based on the group’s simplified force field. They carried out molecular dynamics simulations in which they changed the amount of power applied to the graphene, as well as the thickness of the intermediate water layer, and observed the amount of heat that carried over from the graphene to the cell membrane.

Watery crystals

Because the stiffness of graphene and biological tissue is so different, Qin and his colleagues expected that heat would conduct rather poorly between the two materials, building up steeply in the graphene before flooding and overheating the cell membrane. However, the intermediate water layer helped dissipate this heat, easing its conduction and preventing a temperature spike in the cell membrane.

Looking more closely at the interactions within this interface, the researchers made a surprising discovery: Within the sandwich model, the water, pressed against graphene’s chicken-wire pattern, morphed into a similar crystal-like structure.

“Graphene’s lattice acts like a template to guide the water to form network structures,” Qin explains. “The water acts more like a solid material and makes the stiffness transition from graphene and membrane less abrupt. We think this helps heat to conduct from graphene to the membrane side.”

The group varied the thickness of the intermediate water layer in simulations, and found that a 1-nanometer-wide layer of water helped to dissipate heat very effectively. In terms of the power applied to the system, they calculated that about a megawatt of power per meter squared, applied in tiny, microsecond bursts, was the most power that could be applied to the interface without overheating the cell membrane.

Qin says going forward, implant designers can use the group’s model and simulations to determine the critical power requirements for graphene devices of different dimensions. As for how they might practically control the thickness of the intermediate water layer, he says graphene’s surface may be modified to attract a particular number of water molecules.

“I think graphene provides a very promising candidate for implantable devices,” Qin says. “Our calculations can provide knowledge for designing these devices in the future, for specific applications, like sensors, monitors, and other biomedical applications.”

This research was supported in part by the MIT International Science and Technology Initiative (MISTI): MIT-China Seed Fund, the National Natural Science Foundation of China, DARPA [US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency], the Department of Defense (DoD) Office of Naval Research, the DoD Multidisciplinary Research Initiatives program, the MIT Energy Initiative, and the National Science Foundation.

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

Intercalated water layers promote thermal dissipation at bio–nano interfaces by Yanlei Wang, Zhao Qin, Markus J. Buehler, & Zhiping Xu. Nature Communications 7, Article number: 12854 doi:10.1038/ncomms12854 Published 23 September 2016

This paper is open access.

Nanotechnology and water sustainability webinar, Oct. 19, 2016

An upcoming (Oct. 19, 2016) webinar from the US National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) is the first of a new series (from an Oct. 7, 2016 news item on Nanowerk),

“Water Sustainability through Nanotechnology: A Federal Perspective” – This webinar is the first in a series exploring the confluence of nanotechnology and water. This event will introduce the Nanotechnology Signature Initiative (NSI): Water Sustainability through Nanotechnology and highlight the activities of several participating Federal agencies. …

The NNI event page for the Water Sustainability through Nanotechnology webinar provides more detail,

Panelists include Nora Savage (National Science Foundation), Daniel Barta (National Aeronautics and Space Adminstration), Paul Shapiro (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency), Jim Dobrowolski (USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture), and Hongda Chen (USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture).

Webinar viewers will be able to submit questions for the panelists to answer during the Q&A period. Submitted questions will be considered in the order received and may be posted on the NNI website. A moderator will identify relevant questions and pose them to the speakers. Due to time constraints, not all questions may be addressed during the webinar. The moderator reserves the right to group similar questions and to skip questions, as appropriate.

There will be more in this series according to the webinar event page,

  • Increase water availability.
  • Improve the efficiency of water delivery and use.
  • Enable next-generation water monitoring systems.

You can register here to participate.

The NNI has a webpage dedicated to Water Sustainability through Nanotechnology: Nanoscale solutions for a Global-Scale Challenge, which explains their perspective on the matter,

Water is essential to all life, and its significance bridges many critical areas for society: food, energy, security, and the environment. Projected population growth in the coming decades and associated increases in demands for water exacerbate the mounting pressure to address water sustainability. Yet, only 2.5% of the world’s water is fresh water, and some of the most severe impacts of climate change are on our country’s water resources. For example, in 2012, droughts affected about two-thirds of the continental United States, impacting water supplies, tourism, transportation, energy, and fisheries – costing the agricultural sector alone $30 billion. In addition, the ground water in many of the Nation’s aquifers is being depleted at unsustainable rates, which necessitates drilling ever deeper to tap groundwater resources. Finally, water infrastructure is a critically important but sometimes overlooked aspect of water treatment and distribution. Both technological and sociopolitical solutions are required to address these problems.

The text also goes on to describe how nanotechnology could  assist with this challenge.

Carbon nanotubes that can outperform silicon

According to a Sept. 2, 2016 news item on phys.org, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have produced carbon nanotube transistors that outperform state-of-the-art silicon transistors,

For decades, scientists have tried to harness the unique properties of carbon nanotubes to create high-performance electronics that are faster or consume less power—resulting in longer battery life, faster wireless communication and faster processing speeds for devices like smartphones and laptops.

But a number of challenges have impeded the development of high-performance transistors made of carbon nanotubes, tiny cylinders made of carbon just one atom thick. Consequently, their performance has lagged far behind semiconductors such as silicon and gallium arsenide used in computer chips and personal electronics.

Now, for the first time, University of Wisconsin-Madison materials engineers have created carbon nanotube transistors that outperform state-of-the-art silicon transistors.

Led by Michael Arnold and Padma Gopalan, UW-Madison professors of materials science and engineering, the team’s carbon nanotube transistors achieved current that’s 1.9 times higher than silicon transistors. …

A Sept. 2, 2016 University of Wisconsin-Madison news release (also on EurekAlert) by Adam Malecek, which originated the news item, describes the research in more detail and notes that the technology has been patented,

“This achievement has been a dream of nanotechnology for the last 20 years,” says Arnold. “Making carbon nanotube transistors that are better than silicon transistors is a big milestone. This breakthrough in carbon nanotube transistor performance is a critical advance toward exploiting carbon nanotubes in logic, high-speed communications, and other semiconductor electronics technologies.”

This advance could pave the way for carbon nanotube transistors to replace silicon transistors and continue delivering the performance gains the computer industry relies on and that consumers demand. The new transistors are particularly promising for wireless communications technologies that require a lot of current flowing across a relatively small area.

As some of the best electrical conductors ever discovered, carbon nanotubes have long been recognized as a promising material for next-generation transistors.

Carbon nanotube transistors should be able to perform five times faster or use five times less energy than silicon transistors, according to extrapolations from single nanotube measurements. The nanotube’s ultra-small dimension makes it possible to rapidly change a current signal traveling across it, which could lead to substantial gains in the bandwidth of wireless communications devices.

But researchers have struggled to isolate purely carbon nanotubes, which are crucial, because metallic nanotube impurities act like copper wires and disrupt their semiconducting properties — like a short in an electronic device.

The UW–Madison team used polymers to selectively sort out the semiconducting nanotubes, achieving a solution of ultra-high-purity semiconducting carbon nanotubes.

“We’ve identified specific conditions in which you can get rid of nearly all metallic nanotubes, where we have less than 0.01 percent metallic nanotubes,” says Arnold.

Placement and alignment of the nanotubes is also difficult to control.

To make a good transistor, the nanotubes need to be aligned in just the right order, with just the right spacing, when assembled on a wafer. In 2014, the UW–Madison researchers overcame that challenge when they announced a technique, called “floating evaporative self-assembly,” that gives them this control.

The nanotubes must make good electrical contacts with the metal electrodes of the transistor. Because the polymer the UW–Madison researchers use to isolate the semiconducting nanotubes also acts like an insulating layer between the nanotubes and the electrodes, the team “baked” the nanotube arrays in a vacuum oven to remove the insulating layer. The result: excellent electrical contacts to the nanotubes.

The researchers also developed a treatment that removes residues from the nanotubes after they’re processed in solution.

“In our research, we’ve shown that we can simultaneously overcome all of these challenges of working with nanotubes, and that has allowed us to create these groundbreaking carbon nanotube transistors that surpass silicon and gallium arsenide transistors,” says Arnold.

The researchers benchmarked their carbon nanotube transistor against a silicon transistor of the same size, geometry and leakage current in order to make an apples-to-apples comparison.

They are continuing to work on adapting their device to match the geometry used in silicon transistors, which get smaller with each new generation. Work is also underway to develop high-performance radio frequency amplifiers that may be able to boost a cellphone signal. While the researchers have already scaled their alignment and deposition process to 1 inch by 1 inch wafers, they’re working on scaling the process up for commercial production.

Arnold says it’s exciting to finally reach the point where researchers can exploit the nanotubes to attain performance gains in actual technologies.

“There has been a lot of hype about carbon nanotubes that hasn’t been realized, and that has kind of soured many people’s outlook,” says Arnold. “But we think the hype is deserved. It has just taken decades of work for the materials science to catch up and allow us to effectively harness these materials.”

The researchers have patented their technology through the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation.

Interestingly, at least some of the research was publicly funded according to the news release,

Funding from the National Science Foundation, the Army Research Office and the Air Force supported their work.

Will the public ever benefit financially from this research?

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.