Tag Archives: Western University

Seeing ghosts: recovering images from dageurreotypes with help from the Canadian Light Source (synchrotron)

A daguerreotype plate with the photograph hidden by the tarnish (left) yet visible when imaged with synchrotron X-rays (right). Courtesy of Madalena Kozachuk.

Amazing, yes? Especially when you consider how devastating the inadvertent destruction of important daguerreotypes in an exhibition of US Civil War photography must have been to the curators and owners of the images. The ‘destruction’ occurred in 2005 and inspired research into the cause of the destruction, which was first covered here in a January 10, 2013 posting and followed up in a November 17, 2015 posting about an exhibit showcasing the results of the research.

A daguerreotype plate with the photograph hidden by the tarnish (left) yet visible when imaged with synchrotron X-rays (right). Courtesy of Madalena Kozachuk.

This latest research into daguerreotypes was performed at the Canadian Light Source (CLS; Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada). Unlike my previous postings, this research was an attempt to retrieve the original image rather than research the reasons for its ‘destruction’. From a June 22, 2018 CLS news release (also on EurekAlert) by Lana Haight and Jeffrey Renaud (Note: Links have been removed),

Art curators will be able to recover images on daguerreotypes, the earliest form of photography that used silver plates, after scientists learned how to use light to see through degradation that has occurred over time.

Research published today [June 22, 2018] in Scientific Reports includes two images from the National Gallery of Canada’s photography research unit that show photographs that were taken, perhaps as early as 1850, but were no longer visible because of tarnish and other damage. The retrieved images, one of a woman and the other of a man, were beyond recognition.

“It’s somewhat haunting because they are anonymous and yet it is striking at the same time,” said Madalena Kozachuk, a PhD student in the Department of Chemistry at Western University [formerly University of Western Ontario] and lead author of the scientific paper.

“The image is totally unexpected because you don’t see it on the plate at all. It’s hidden behind time. But then we see it and we can see such fine details: the eyes, the folds of the clothing, the detailed embroidered patterns of the table cloth.”

The identities of the woman and the man are not known. It’s possible that the plates were produced in the United States, but they could be from Europe.

For the past three years, Kozachuk and an interdisciplinary team of scientists have been exploring how to use synchrotron technology to learn more about chemical changes that damage daguerreotypes.

Invented in 1839, daguerreotype images were created using a highly polished silver-coated copper plate that was sensitive to light when exposed to an iodine vapour. Subjects had to pose without moving for two to three minutes for the image to imprint on the plate, which was then developed as a photograph using a mercury vapour that was heated.

Kozachuk conducts much of her research at the Canadian Light Source and previously published results in scientific journals in 2017 and earlier this year. In those articles, the team members identified the chemical composition of the tarnish and how it changed from one point to another on a daguerreotype.

“We compared degradation that looked like corrosion versus a cloudiness from the residue from products used during the rinsing of the photographs versus degradation from the cover glass. When you look at these degraded photographs, you don’t see one type of degradation,” said Ian Coulthard, a senior scientist at the CLS and one of Kozachuk’s supervisors. He is also a co- author on the research papers.

This preliminary research at the CLS led to today’s [June 22, 2018] paper and the images Kozachuk collected at the Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source where she was able to analyze the daguerreotypes in their entirety.

Kozachuk used rapid-scanning micro-X-ray fluorescence imaging to analyze the plates, which are about 7.5 cm wide, and identified where mercury was distributed on the plates. With an X-ray beam as small as 10 by 10 microns (a human scalp hair averages 75 microns across) and at an energy most sensitive to mercury absorption, the scan of each daguerreotype took about eight hours.

“Mercury is the major element that contributes to the imagery captured in these photographs. Even though the surface is tarnished, those image particles remain intact. By looking at the mercury, we can retrieve the image in great detail,” said Tsun-Kong (T.K.) Sham, Canada Research Chair in Materials and Synchrotron Radiation at Western University. He also is a co-author of the research and one of Kozachuk’s supervisors.

This is one of the many examples of successful research collaboration between Western University and CLS scientists.

Kozachuk’s research, which is ongoing, will contribute to improving how daguerreotype images are recovered when cleaning is possible and will provide a way to see what’s below the tarnish when cleaning is not possible. She will be back at the CLS this fall to continue her work.

The prospect of improved conservation methods intrigues John P. McElhone, recently retired as the chief of the Conservation and Technical Research branch at the Canadian Photography Institute of the National Gallery of Canada. He provided the daguerreotypes from the institute’s research collection.

“There are a lot of interesting questions that at this stage of our knowledge can only be answered by a sophisticated scientific approach,” said McElhone, another of the co-authors of today’s paper.

“A conservator’s first step is to have a full and complete understanding of what the material isand how it is assembled on a microscopic and even nanoscale level. We want to find out how the chemicals are arranged on the surface and that understanding gives us access to theories about how degradation happens and how that degradation can possibly or possibly not be reversed.”

As the first commercialized photographic process, the daguerreotype is thought to be the first “true” visual representation of history. Unlike painters who could use “poetic licence” in their work, the daguerreotype reflected precisely what was photographed.

Thousands and perhaps millions of daguerreotypes were created over 20 years in the 19th century before the process was replaced. The Canadian Photography Institute collection numbers more than 2,700, not including the daguerreotypes in the institute’s research collection.

By improving the process of restoring these centuries-old images, the scientists are contributing to the historical record. What was thought to be lost that showed the life and times of people from the 19th century can now be found. [emphases mine]

That last sentence seems to be borrowing from a line in the song, Amazing Grace, “I once was lost, but now am found,” from the song’s Wikipedia entry.

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

Recovery of Degraded-Beyond-Recognition 19th Century Daguerreotypes with Rapid High Dynamic Range Elemental X-ray Fluorescence Imaging of Mercury L Emission by Madalena S. Kozachuk, Tsun-Kong Sham, Ronald R. Martin, Andrew J. Nelson, Ian Coulthard, & John P. McElhone. Scientific Reports volume 8, Article number: 9565 (2018) DOI:10.1038/s41598-018-27714 Published online June 22, 2018

This paper is open access. By the way, the research into the ‘destruction’ of the daguerreotypes in the 2005 exhibition? It’s cited in this paper.

Refining metals more sustainably

We don’t just extract and refine metals from the earth, increasingly, we extract and refine them from consumer goods. Researchers from McGill University (Montréal, Québec, Canada) have devised a ‘greener’ technique to do this. From a June 7, 2017 McGill University news release (received via email and also on EurekAlert),

A team of chemists in Canada has developed a way to process metals without using toxic solvents and reagents.

The system, which also consumes far less energy than conventional techniques, could greatly shrink the environmental impact of producing metals from raw materials or from post-consumer electronics.

“At a time when natural deposits of metals are on the decline, there is a great deal of interest in improving the efficiency of metal refinement and recycling, but few disruptive technologies are being put forth,” says Jean-Philip Lumb, an associate professor in McGill University’s Department of Chemistry. “That’s what makes our advance so important.”

The discovery stems from a collaboration between Lumb and Tomislav Friscic at McGill in Montreal, and Kim Baines of Western University in London, Ont. In an article published recently in Science Advances, the researchers outline an approach that uses organic molecules, instead of chlorine and hydrochloric acid, to help purify germanium, a metal used widely in electronic devices. Laboratory experiments by the researchers have shown that the same technique can be used with other metals, including zinc, copper, manganese and cobalt.

The research could mark an important milestone for the “green chemistry” movement, which seeks to replace toxic reagents used in conventional industrial manufacturing with more environmentally friendly alternatives. Most advances in this area have involved organic chemistry – the synthesis of carbon-based compounds used in pharmaceuticals and plastics, for example.

“Applications of green chemistry lag far behind in the area of metals,” Lumb says. “Yet metals are just as important for sustainability as any organic compound. For example, electronic devices require numerous metals to function.”

Taking a page from biology

There is no single ore rich in germanium, so it is generally obtained from mining operations as a minor component in a mixture with many other materials. Through a series of processes, that blend of matter can be reduced to germanium and zinc.

“Currently, in order to isolate germanium from zinc, it’s a pretty nasty process,” Baines explains. The new approach developed by the McGill and Western chemists “enables you to get germanium from zinc, without those nasty processes.”

To accomplish this, the researchers took a page from biology. Lumb’s lab for years has conducted research into the chemistry of melanin, the molecule in human tissue that gives skin and hair their color. Melanin also has the ability to bind to metals. “We asked the question: ‘Here’s this biomaterial with exquisite function, would it be possible to use it as a blueprint for new, more efficient technologies?'”

The scientists teamed up to synthesize a molecule that mimics some of the qualities of melanin. In particular, this “organic co-factor” acts as a mediator that helps to extract germanium at room temperature, without using solvents.

Next step: industrial scale

The system also taps into Friscic’s expertise in mechanochemistry, an emerging branch of chemistry that relies on mechanical force – rather than solvents and heat – to promote chemical reactions. Milling jars containing stainless-steel balls are shaken at high speeds to help purify the metal.

“This shows how collaborations naturally can lead to sustainability-oriented innovation,” Friscic says. “Combining elegant new chemistry with solvent-free mechanochemical techniques led us to a process that is cleaner by virtue of circumventing chlorine-based processing, but also eliminates the generation of toxic solvent waste”

The next step in developing the technology will be to show that it can be deployed economically on industrial scales, for a range of metals.

“There’s a tremendous amount of work that needs to be done to get from where we are now to where we need to go,” Lumb says. “But the platform works on many different kinds of metals and metal oxides, and we think that it could become a technology adopted by industry. We are looking for stakeholders with whom we can partner to move this technology forward.”

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

A chlorine-free protocol for processing germanium by Martin Glavinovic, Michael Krause, Linju Yang, John A. McLeod, Lijia Liu, Kim M. Baines, Tomislav Friščić, and Jean-Philip Lumb. Science Advances 05 May 2017: Vol. 3, no. 5, e1700149 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1700149

This paper is open access.

ETA June 9, 2017 at 1700 hours PDT: I have to give them marks for creativity. Here’s the image being used to illustrate the work,

Caption: Strategy for reducing the environmental impact of a refining process: replace hazardous chemicals with more benign and recyclable compounds. Credit: Michael J. Krause (Western University)

Research2Reality: a science media engagement experience dedicated to Canadian science

As of May 11, 2015, Canadians will be getting an addition to their science media environment (from the May 4, 2015 news release),

Research2Reality to celebrate Canadian research stars

Social media initiative to popularize scientific innovation

May 4, 2015, TORONTO – On Monday, May 11, Research2Reality.com goes live and launches a social media initiative that will make the scientist a star. Following in the footsteps of popular sites like IFLScience and How Stuff Works, Research2Reality uses a video series and website to engage the community in the forefront of scientific discoveries made here in Canada.

The interviews feature some of Canada’s leading researchers such as Dick Peltier – director of the Centre for Global Change Science at the University of Toronto, Sally Aitken – director of the Centre for Forest Conservation Genetics at the University of British Columbia and Raymond Laflamme – executive director of the Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo.

“Right now many Canadians don’t understand the scope of cutting-edge work being done in our backyards,” says Research2Reality co-founder and award-winning professor Molly Shoichet. “This initiative will bridge that gap between researchers and the public.”

Also launching Monday, May 11, courtesy of Research2Reality’s official media partner, Discovery Science, is a complementary website www.sciencechannel.ca/Shows/Research2Reality. The new website will feature the exclusive premieres of a collection of interview sessions. In addition, Discovery Science and Discovery will broadcast an imaginative series of public service announcements through the end of the year, while social media accounts will promote Research2Reality, including Discovery’s flagship science and technology program DAILY PLANET.

About Research2Reality:
Research2Reality is a social media initiative designed to popularize the latest Canadian research. It was founded by Molly Shoichet, Professor of Chemical Engineering & Applied Chemistry and Canada Research Chair in Tissue Engineering at the University of Toronto, and Mike MacMillan, founder and producer of Lithium Studios Productions. Research2Reality’s founding partners are leading research-intensive universities – the University of Alberta, the University of British Columbia, McMaster University, the University of Toronto, the University of Waterloo, and Western University – along with the Ontario Government and Discovery Networks. Discovery Science is the official media partner. Research2Reality is also supported by The Globe and Mail.

Research2Reality details

A Valentine of sorts to Canadian science researchers from Molly Shoichet (pronounced shoy [and] quette as in David Arquette)  and her producing partner Mike MacMillan of Lithium Studios, Research2Reality gives Canadians an opportunity to discover online some of the extraordinary work done by scientists of all stripes, including (unusually) social scientists, in this country. The top tier in this effort is the interview video series ‘The Orange Chair Sessions‘  which can be found and shared across

Shoichet and MacMillan are convinced there’s an appetite for more comprehensive science information. Supporting The Orange Chair Sessions is a complementary website operated by Discovery Channel where there are

  • more interviews
  • backgrounders,
  • biographies,
  • blogs, and
  • links to other resources

Discovery Channel is also going to be airing special one minute  public service announcements (PSA) on topics like water, quantum computing, and cancer. Here’s one of the first of those PSAs,

“I’m very excited about this and really hope that other people will be too,” says Shoichet. The audience for the Research2Reality endeavour is for people who like to know more and have questions when they see news items about science discoveries that can’t be answered by investigating mainstream media programmes or trying to read complex research papers.

This is a big undertaking. ” Mike and I thought about this for about two years.” Building on the support they received from the University of Toronto, “We reached out to the vice-presidents of research at the top fifteen universities in the country.” In the end, six universities accepted the invitation to invest in this project,

  • the University of British Columbia,
  • the University of Alberta,
  • Western University (formerly the University of Western Ontario),
  • McMaster University,
  • Waterloo University, and, of course,
  • the University of Toronto

(Unfortunately, Shoichet was not able to answer a question about the cost for an individual episode but perhaps when there’s time that detail and more about the financing will be made available. [ETA May 11, 2015 1625 PDT: Ivan Semeniuk notes this is a $400,000 project in his Globe and Mail May 11, 2015 article.]) As part of their involvement, the universities decide which of their researchers/projects should be profiled then Research2Reality swings into action. “We shoot our own video, that is, we (Mike and I) come out and conduct interviews that take approximately fifteen minutes. We also shoot a b-roll, that is, footage of the laboratories and other relevant sites so it’s not all ‘talking heads’.” Shoichet and MacMillan are interested in the answer to two questions, “What are you doing? and Why do we care?” Neither interviewer/producer is seen or heard on camera as they wanted to keep the focus on the researcher.

Three videos are being released initially with another 67 in the pipeline for a total of 70.  The focus is on research of an international calibre and one of the first interviews to be released (Shoichet’s will be release later) is Raymond Laflamme’s (he’s also featured in the ‘quantum PSA’.

Raymond Laflamme

Who convinces a genius that he’s gotten an important cosmological concept wrong or ignored it? Alongside Don Page, Laflamme accomplished that feat as one of Stephen Hawking’s PhD students at the University of Cambridge. Today (May 11, 2015), Laflamme is (from his Wikipedia entry)

… co-founder and current director of the Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo. He is also a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Waterloo and an associate faculty member at Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. Laflamme is currently a Canada Research Chair in Quantum Information.

Laflamme changed his focus from quantum cosmology to quantum information while at Los Alamos, “To me, it seemed natural. Not much of a change.” It is the difference between being a theoretician and an experimentalist and anyone who’s watched The Big Bang Theory (US television programme) knows that Laflamme made a big leap.

One of his major research interests is quantum cryptography, a means of passing messages you can ensure are private. Laflamme’s team and a team in Vienna (Austria) have enabled two quantum communication systems, one purely terrestrial version, which can exchange messages with another such system up to 100 km. away. There are some problems yet to be solved with terrestrial quantum communication. First, buildings, trees, and other structures provide interference as does the curvature of the earth. Second, fibre optic cables absorb some of the photons en route.

Satellite quantum communication seems more promising as these problems are avoided altogether. The joint Waterloo/Vienna team of researchers has  conducted successful satellite experiments in quantum communication in the Canary Islands.

While there don’t seem to be any practical, commercial quantum applications, Laflamme says that isn’t strictly speaking the truth, “In the last 10  to 15 years many ideas have been realized.” The talk turns to quantum sensing and Laflamme mentions two startups and notes he can’t talk about them yet. But there is Universal Quantum Devices (UQD), a company that produces parts for quantum sensors. It is Laflamme’s startup, one he co-founded with two partners. (For anyone unfamiliar with the Canadian academic scene, Laflamme’s home institution, the University of Waterloo, is one of the most actively ‘innovative’ and business-oriented universities in Canada.)

LaFlamme’s interests extend beyond laboratory work and business. He’s an active science communicator as can be seen in this 2010 TEDxWaterloo presentation where he takes his audience from the discovery of fire to quantum physics concepts such as a ‘quantum superposition’ and the ‘observer effect’ to the question, ‘What is reality?’ in approximately 18 mins.

For anyone who needs a little more information, a quantum superposition is a term referring the ability of a quantum object to inhabit two states simultaneously, e.g., on/off. yes/no, alive/dead, as in Schrödinger’s cat. (You can find out more about quantum superpositions in this Wikipedia essay and about Schrodinger’s cat in this Wikipedia essay.) The observer effect is a phenomenon whereby the observer of a quantum experiment affects that experiment by the act of observing it. (You can find out more about the observer effect in this Wikipedia essay.)

The topic of reality is much trickier to explain. No one has yet been able to offer a viable theory for why the world at the macro scale behaves one way (classical physics) and the world at the quantum scale behaves another way (quantum physics). As Laflamme notes, “There is no such thing as a superposition in classical physics but we can prove in the laboratory that it exists in quantum physics.” He goes on to suggest that children, raised in an environment where quantum physics and its applications are commonplace, will have an utterly different notion as to what constitutes reality.

Laflamme is also interested in music and consulted on a ‘quantum symphony’. He has this to say about it in an Sept. 20, 2012 piece on the University of Waterlo website,

Science and art share a common goal — to help us understand our universe and ourselves.  Research at IQC [Institute for Quantum Computing] aims to provide important new understanding of nature’s building blocks, and devise methods to turn that understanding into technologies beneficial for society.Since founding IQC a decade ago, I have sought ways to bridge science and the arts, with the belief that scientific discovery itself is a source of beauty and inspiration.  Our collaboration with the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony was an example — one of many yet to come — of how science and the arts provide different but complementary insights into our universe and ourselves.

I wrote about the IQC and the symphony which debuted at the IQC’s opening in a Sept. 25, 2012 posting.

Music is not the only art which has attracted Laflamme’s talents. He consulted on a documentary, The Quantum Tamers: Revealing our weird and wired future, a co-production between Canada’s Perimeter Institute and Title Entertainment,

From deep inside the sewers of Vienna, site of groundbreaking quantum teleportation experiments, to cutting-edge quantum computing labs, to voyages into the minds of the world’s brightest thinkers, including renowned British scientist Stephen Hawking, this documentary explores the coming quantum technological revolution.

All of this suggests an interest in science not seen since the 19th century when scientists could fill theatres for their lectures. Even Hollywood is capitalizing on this interest. Laflamme, who saw ‘Interstellar’, ‘The Imitation Game’ (Alan Turing), and ‘The Theory of Everything’ (Stephen Hawking) in fall 2014 comments, “I was surprised by how much science there was in The Imitation Game and Interstellar.” As for the Theory of Everything, “I was apprehensive since I know Stephen well. But, the actor, Eddie Redmayne, and the movie surprised me. There were times when he moved his head or did something in a particular way—he was Stephen. Also, most people don’t realize what an incredible sense of humour Stephen has and the movie captured that well.” Laflamme also observed that it was a movie about a relationship and not really concerned with science and its impacts (good and ill) or scientific accomplishments.  Although he allows, “It could have had more science.”

Research2Reality producers

Molly Shoichet

Co-producer Shoichet has sterling scientific credentials of her own. In addition to this science communication project, she runs the Shoichet Lab at the University of Toronto (from the Dr. Molly Shoichet bio page),

Dr. Molly Shoichet holds the Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Tissue Engineering and is University Professor of Chemical Engineering & Applied Chemistry, Chemistry and Biomaterials & Biomedical Engineering at the University of Toronto. She is an expert in the study of Polymers for Drug Delivery & Regeneration which are materials that promote healing in the body.

Dr. Shoichet has published over to 480 papers, patents and abstracts and has given over 310 lectures worldwide.  She currently leads a laboratory of 25 researchers and has graduated 134 researchers over the past 20 years.  She founded two spin-off companies from research in her laboratory.

Dr. Shoichet is the recipient of many prestigious distinctions and the only person to be a Fellow of Canada’s 3 National Academies: Canadian Academy of Sciences of the Royal Society of Canada, Canadian Academy of Engineering, and Canadian Academy of Health Sciences. Dr. Shoichet holds the Order of Ontario, Ontario’s highest honour and is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In 2013, her contributions to Canada’s innovation agenda and the advancement of knowledge were recognized with the QEII Diamond Jubilee Award. In 2014, she was given the University of Toronto’s highest distinction, University Professor, a distinction held by less than 2% of the faculty.

Mike MacMillan

MacMIllan’s biography (from the Lithium Studios website About section hints this is his first science-oriented series (Note: Links have been removed),

Founder of Lithium Studios Productions
University of Toronto (‘02)
UCLA’s Professional Producing Program (‘11)

His first feature, the dark comedy / thriller I Put a Hit on You (2014, Telefilm Canada supported), premiered at this year’s Slamdance Film Festival in Park City. Guidance (2014, Telefilm Canada supported, with super producer Alyson Richards over at Edyson), a dark comedy/coming of age story is currently in post-production, expected to join the festival circuit in September 2014.

Mike has produced a dozen short films with Toronto talents Dane Clark and Linsey Stewart (CAN – Long Branch, Margo Lily), Samuel Fluckiger (SWISS – Terminal, Nightlight) and Darragh McDonald (CAN – Love. Marriage. Miscarriage.). They’ve played at the top film fests around the world and won a bunch of awards.

Special skills include kickass hat collection and whiskey. Bam.

Final comments

It’s nice to see the Canadian scene expanding; I’m particularly pleased to learn social scientists will be included.Too often researchers from the physical sciences or natural sciences and researchers from the social sciences remain aloof from each other. In April 2013, I attended a talk by Evelyn Fox Keller, physicist, feminist, and philosopher, who read from a paper she’d written based on a then relatively recent experience in South Africa where researchers had aligned themselves in two different groups and refused to speak to each other. They were all anthropologists but the sticking point was the type of science they practiced. One group were physical anthropologists and the other were cultural anthropologists. That’s an extreme example unfortunately symptomatic of a great divide. Bravo to Research2Reality for bringing the two groups together.

As for the science appetite Shoichet and MacMillan see in Canada, this is not the only country experiencing a resurgence of interest; they’ve been experiencing a science media expansion in the US.  Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Star Talk television talk show, which also exists as a radio podcast, debuted on April 19, 2015 (Yahoo article by Calla Cofield); Public Radio Exchange’s (PRX) Transistor; a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) audio project debuted in Feb. 2015; and video podcast Science Goes to the Movies also debuted in Feb. 2015 (more about the last two initiatives in my March 6, 2015 posting [scroll down about 40% of the way]). Finally (for the burgeoning US science media scene) and neither least nor new, David Bruggeman has a series of posts titled, Science and Technology Guests on Late Night, Week of …, on his Pasco Phronesis blog which has been running for many years. Bruggeman’s series is being included here because most people don’t realize that US late night talk shows have jumped into the science scene. You can check  David’s site here as he posts this series on Mondays and this is Monday, May 11, 2015.

It’s early days for Research2Reality and it doesn’t yet have the depth one might wish. The videos are short (the one featured on the Discovery Channel’s complementary website is less than 2 mins. and prepare yourself for ads). They may not be satisfying from an information perspective but what makes The Orange Chair Series fascinating is the peek into the Canadian research scene. Welcome to Research2Reality and I hope to hear more about you in the coming months.

[ETA May 11, 2015 at 1625 PDT: Semeniuk’s May 11, 2015 article mentions a few other efforts to publicize Canadian research (Note: Links have been removed),

For example, Research Matters, a promotional effort by the Council of Ontario Universities, has built up a large bank of short articles on its website that highlight researchers across the province. Similarly, the Canada Foundation for Innovation, which channels federal dollars toward research infrastructure and projects, produces features stories with embedded videos about the scientists who are enabled by their investments.

What makes Research2Reality different, said Dr. Shoichet, is an approach that doesn’t speak for one region, field of research of  [sic] funding stream.

One other aspect which distinguishes Research2Reality from the other science promotion efforts is the attempt to reach out to the audience. The Canada Foundation for Innovation and Council for Ontario Universities are not known for reaching out directly to the general public.]

Fishnet of gold atoms improves solar cell performance

Apparently they’re calling the University of Western Ontario by a new name, Western University. Given the university’s location in what is generally acknowledged as central Canada or, sometimes, as eastern Canada, this seems like a geographically confusing approach not only in Canada but elsewhere too. After all, more than one country boasts a ‘west’.

A Sept. 26, 2014 news item on Nanowerk highlights new work on improving solar cell performance (Note: A link has been removed),

Scientists at Western University [Ontario, Canada] have discovered that a small molecule created with just 144 atoms of gold can increase solar cell performance by more than 10 per cent. These findings, published recently by the high-impact journal Nanoscale (“Tessellated gold nanostructures from Au144(SCH2CH2Ph)60 molecular precursors and their use in organic solar cell enhancement”), represent a game-changing innovation that holds the potential to take solar power mainstream and dramatically decrease the world’s dependence on traditional, resource-based sources of energy, says Giovanni Fanchini from Western’s Faculty of Science.

For those of us who remember ‘times tables’, the number 144 can have a special meaning as it is the last number (’12’ times ’12’ equals ‘144’) one was obliged to memorize. At least, that was true at my school in Vancouver, Canada but perhaps not elsewhere, eh?

Getting back to the ‘fishnet’, a Sept. 25, 2014 Western University news release, which originated the news item, expands the business possibilities for this work,

Fanchini, the Canada Research Chair in Carbon-based Nanomaterials and Nano-optoelectronics, says the new technology could easily be fast-tracked and integrated into prototypes of solar panels in one to two years and solar-powered phones in as little as five years.

“Every time you recharge your cell phone, you have to plug it in,” says Fanchini, an assistant professor in Western’s Department of Physics and Astronomy. “What if you could charge mobile devices like phones, tablets or laptops on the go? Not only would it be convenient, but the potential energy savings would be significant.”

The Western researchers have already started working with manufacturers of solar components to integrate their findings into existing solar cell technology and are excited about the potential.

“The Canadian business industry already has tremendous know-how in solar manufacturing,” says Fanchini. “Our invention is modular, an add-on to the existing production process, so we anticipate a working prototype very quickly.”

The news release then gives a few technical details,

Making nanoplasmonic enhancements, Fanchini and his team use “gold nanoclusters” as building blocks to create a flexible network of antennae on more traditional solar panels to attract an increase of light. While nanotechnology is the science of creating functional systems at the molecular level, nanoplasmonics investigates the interaction of light with and within these systems.

“Picture an extremely delicate fishnet of gold,” explains Fanchini explains, noting that the antennae are so miniscule they are unseen even with a conventional optical microscope. “The fishnet catches the light emitted by the sun and draws it into the active region of the solar cell.”

According to Fanchini, the spectrum of light reflected by gold is centered on the yellow colour and matches the light spectrum of the sun making it superior for such antennae as it greatly amplifies the amount of sunlight going directly into the device.

“Gold is very robust, resilient to oxidization and not easily damaged, making it the perfect material for long-term use,” says Fanchini. “And gold can also be recycled.”

It has been known for some time that larger gold nanoparticles enhance solar cell performance, but the Western team is getting results with “a ridiculously small amount” – approximately 10,000 times less than previous studies, which is 10,000 times less expensive too.

I hope to hear about a working prototype soon. Meanwhile, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Tessellated gold nanostructures from Au144(SCH2CH2Ph)60 molecular precursors and their use in organic solar cell enhancement by Reg Bauld, Mahdi Hesari, Mark S. Workentin, and Giovanni Fanchini. Nanoscale, 2014,6, 7570-7575 DOI: 10.1039/C4NR01821D
First published online 06 May 2014

This paper is behind a paywall.

One final comment, it seems like a long lead time between publication of the paper and publicity. I wonder if the paper failed to get notice in May 2014, assuming there was a campaign at the time, or if this is considered a more optimal time period for getting noticed.

Spider-mites spin new nanomaterial at Canada’s University of Western Ontario

I’m not always the sharpest knife in the drawer and skimming news articles exacerbates the problem, so, it took me a minute (more or less) to realize that spiders and spider-mites are not the same, which is what makes this discovery about spider-mite silk, featured in a May 23, 2013 news item on phys.org, special in amongst the many stories on spider silk (Note: A link has been removed),

A new, natural nanomaterial, which may prove incredibly beneficial to medical bioengineers, has been discovered by the research team at Western University [aka University of Western Ontario] that successfully sequenced the spider mite genome in 2011.

Western biology professor Miodrag Grbic and his team have now collaborated with physicist Jeff Hutter to test – for the first-time ever – the durability of spider-mite silk and found the bionanomaterial, which is one thousand times thinner than human hair, to be a potentially superior alternative to spider silk, itself long considered a highly attractive light-weight biomaterial due to its high tensile strength and elasticity.

This is a very good video from Western University (aka University of Western Ontario) featuring both Grbić and Hutter describing their work,

The Western University Apr. 25, 2013 media release, which originated the news item on phys.org, echoes the content in the video,

“One of the discoveries spinning out from our sequencing of the spider-mite genome was spider-mite silk,” explains Grbic, regarding the findings published in Nature in 2011. “When we conceived this project, our idea was to develop tools to control this important world-wide pest but we didn’t even dream that we were going to discover a potential bionanomaterial naturally produced by the spider-mite.”

Due to the near infinitesimal size of the spider mite silk, traditional theories were irrelevant so Hutter and Steve Hudson from the Department of Physics & Astronomy were forced to rethink conventional methods used for measuring the mechanical properties of nanomaterials.

“Basically you measure the strength of a nanofibre by anchoring it at both ends, suspending it, and then bending it with an atomic force microscope,” explains Hutter. “These fibres were so thin that the conventional theory didn’t apply and we had to develop a new theory to understand the data.”

Hutter and Grbic are most excited that spider mite silk has proven to be a truly natural nanomaterial, making its practical applications numerous.

“Spider silk, which people often talk about, has similar properties but it doesn’t score quite as high on Young’s modulus,” says Hutter, explaining the scientific measure used to characterize stiffness in elastic materials. “Plus spider mite silk is way thinner.”

Grbic says potential applications would require further research but could include construction of scaffolding for cell growth, as well as tissue regeneration and transplantation.

Here’s a link to and citation for the team’s latest spider mite silk paper,

Measurement of the elastic modulus of spider mite silk fibers using atomic force microscopy
by Stephen D. Hudson, Vladimir Zhurov, Vojislava Grbić, Miodrag Grbić, and Jeffrey L. Hutter. J. Appl. Phys. 113, 154307 (2013); http://dx.doi.org/10.1063/1.4800865 (7 pages) Published online 16 April 2013

The paper is behind a paywall.