Tag Archives: Yale University

D-PLACE: an open access database of places, language, culture, and enviroment

In an attempt to be a bit more broad in my interpretation of the ‘society’ part of my commentary I’m including this July 8, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily (Note: A link has been removed),

An international team of researchers has developed a website at d-place.org to help answer long-standing questions about the forces that shaped human cultural diversity.

D-PLACE — the Database of Places, Language, Culture and Environment — is an expandable, open access database that brings together a dispersed body of information on the language, geography, culture and environment of more than 1,400 human societies. It comprises information mainly on pre-industrial societies that were described by ethnographers in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

A July 8, 2016 University of Toronto news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

“Human cultural diversity is expressed in numerous ways: from the foods we eat and the houses we build, to our religious practices and political organisation, to who we marry and the types of games we teach our children,” said Kathryn Kirby, a postdoctoral fellow in the Departments of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology and Geography at the University of Toronto and lead author of the study. “Cultural practices vary across space and time, but the factors and processes that drive cultural change and shape patterns of diversity remain largely unknown.

“D-PLACE will enable a whole new generation of scholars to answer these long-standing questions about the forces that have shaped human cultural diversity.”

Co-author Fiona Jordan, senior lecturer in anthropology at the University of Bristol and one of the project leads said, “Comparative research is critical for understanding the processes behind cultural diversity. Over a century of anthropological research around the globe has given us a rich resource for understanding the diversity of humanity – but bringing different resources and datasets together has been a huge challenge in the past.

“We’ve drawn on the emerging big data sets from ecology, and combined these with cultural and linguistic data so researchers can visualise diversity at a glance, and download data to analyse in their own projects.”

D-PLACE allows users to search by cultural practice (e.g., monogamy vs. polygamy), environmental variable (e.g. elevation, mean annual temperature), language family (e.g. Indo-European, Austronesian), or region (e.g. Siberia). The search results can be displayed on a map, a language tree or in a table, and can also be downloaded for further analysis.

It aims to enable researchers to investigate the extent to which patterns in cultural diversity are shaped by different forces, including shared history, demographics, migration/diffusion, cultural innovations, and environmental and ecological conditions.

D-PLACE was developed by an international team of scientists interested in cross-cultural research. It includes researchers from Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human history in Jena Germany, University of Auckland, Colorado State University, University of Toronto, University of Bristol, Yale, Human Relations Area Files, Washington University in Saint Louis, University of Michigan, American Museum of Natural History, and City University of New York.

The diverse team included: linguists; anthropologists; biogeographers; data scientists; ethnobiologists; and evolutionary ecologists, who employ a variety of research methods including field-based primary data collection; compilation of cross-cultural data sources; and analyses of existing cross-cultural datasets.

“The team’s diversity is reflected in D-PLACE, which is designed to appeal to a broad user base,” said Kirby. “Envisioned users range from members of the public world-wide interested in comparing their cultural practices with those of other groups, to cross-cultural researchers interested in pushing the boundaries of existing research into the drivers of cultural change.”

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

D-PLACE: A Global Database of Cultural, Linguistic and Environmental Diversity by Kathryn R. Kirby, Russell D. Gray, Simon J. Greenhill, Fiona M. Jordan, Stephanie Gomes-Ng, Hans-Jörg Bibiko, Damián E. Blasi, Carlos A. Botero, Claire Bowern, Carol R. Ember, Dan Leehr, Bobbi S. Low, Joe McCarter, William Divale, Michael C. Gavin.  PLOS ONE, 2016; 11 (7): e0158391 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0158391 Published July 8, 2016.

This paper is open access.

You can find D-PLACE here.

While it might not seem like that there would be a close link between anthropology and physics in the 19th and early 20th centuries, that information can be mined for more contemporary applications. For example, someone who wants to make a case for a more diverse scientific community may want to develop a social science approach to the discussion. The situation in my June 16, 2016 post titled: Science literacy, science advice, the US Supreme Court, and Britain’s House of Commons, could  be extended into a discussion and educational process using data from D-Place and other sources to make the point,

Science literacy may not be just for the public, it would seem that US Supreme Court judges may not have a basic understanding of how science works. David Bruggeman’s March 24, 2016 posting (on his Pasco Phronesis blog) describes a then current case before the Supreme Court (Justice Antonin Scalia has since died), Note: Links have been removed,

It’s a case concerning aspects of the University of Texas admissions process for undergraduates and the case is seen as a possible means of restricting race-based considerations for admission.  While I think the arguments in the case will likely revolve around factors far removed from science and or technology, there were comments raised by two Justices that struck a nerve with many scientists and engineers.

Both Justice Antonin Scalia and Chief Justice John Roberts raised questions about the validity of having diversity where science and scientists are concerned [emphasis mine].  Justice Scalia seemed to imply that diversity wasn’t esential for the University of Texas as most African-American scientists didn’t come from schools at the level of the University of Texas (considered the best university in Texas).  Chief Justice Roberts was a bit more plain about not understanding the benefits of diversity.  He stated, “What unique perspective does a black student bring to a class in physics?”

To that end, Dr. S. James Gates, theoretical physicist at the University of Maryland, and member of the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (and commercial actor) has an editorial in the March 25 [2016] issue of Science explaining that the value of having diversity in science does not accrue *just* to those who are underrepresented.

Dr. Gates relates his personal experience as a researcher and teacher of how people’s background inform their practice of science, and that two different people may use the same scientific method, but think about the problem differently.

I’m guessing that both Scalia and Roberts and possibly others believe that science is the discovery and accumulation of facts. In this worldview science facts such as gravity are waiting for discovery and formulation into a ‘law’. They do not recognize that most science is a collection of beliefs and may be influenced by personal beliefs. For example, we believe we’ve proved the existence of the Higgs boson but no one associated with the research has ever stated unequivocally that it exists.

More generally, with D-PLACE and the recently announced Trans-Atlantic Platform (see my July 15, 2016 post about it), it seems Canada’s humanities and social sciences communities are taking strides toward greater international collaboration and a more profound investment in digital scholarship.

YBC 7289: a 3,800-year-old mathematical text and 3D printing at Yale University

1,300 years before Pythagoras came up with the theorem associated with his name, a school kid in Babylon formed a disc out of clay and scratched out the theorem when the surface was drying.  According to an April 12, 2016 news item on phys.org the Bablyonians got to the theorem first, (Note: A link has been removed),

Thirty-eight hundred years ago, on the hot river plains of what is now southern Iraq, a Babylonian student did a bit of schoolwork that changed our understanding of ancient mathematics. The student scooped up a palm-sized clump of wet clay, formed a disc about the size and shape of a hamburger, and let it dry down a bit in the sun. On the surface of the moist clay the student drew a diagram that showed the people of the Old Babylonian Period (1,900–1,700 B.C.E.) fully understood the principles of the “Pythagorean Theorem” 1300 years before Greek geometer Pythagoras was born, and were also capable of calculating the square root of two to six decimal places.

Today, thanks to the Internet and new digital scanning methods being employed at Yale, this ancient geometry lesson continues to be used in modern classrooms around the world.

Just when you think it’s all about the theorem, the story which originated in an April 11, 2016 Yale University news release by Patrick Lynch takes a turn,

“This geometry tablet is one of the most-reproduced cultural objects that Yale owns — it’s published in mathematics textbooks the world over,” says Professor Benjamin Foster, curator of the Babylonian Collection, which includes the tablet. It’s also a popular teaching tool in Yale classes. “At the Babylonian Collection we have a very active teaching and learning function, and we regard education as one of the core parts of our mission,” says Foster. “We have graduate and undergraduate groups in our collection classroom every week.”

The tablet, formally known as YBC 7289, “Old Babylonian Period Mathematical Text,” came to Yale in 1909 as part of a much larger collection of cuneiform tablets assembled by J. Pierpont Morgan and donated to Yale. In the ancient Mideast cuneiform writing was created by using a sharp stylus pressed into the surface of a soft clay tablet to produce wedge-like impressions representing pictographic words and numbers. Morgan’s donation of tablets and other artifacts formed the nucleus of the Yale Babylonian Collection, which now incorporates 45,000 items from the ancient Mesopotamian kingdoms.

Discoverying [sic] the tablet’s mathematical significance

The importance of the geometry tablet was first recognized by science historians Otto Neugebauer and Abraham Sachs in their 1945 book “Mathematical Cuneiform Texts.”

“Ironically, mathematicians today are much more fascinated with the Babylonians’ ability to accurately calculate irrational numbers like the square root of two than they are with the geometry demonstrations,” notes associate Babylonian Collection curator Agnete Lassen.

“The Old Babylonian Period produced many tablets that show complex mathematics, but it also produced things you might not expect from a culture this old, such as grammars, dictionaries, and word lists,” says Lassen “One of the two main languages spoken in early Babylonia  was dying out, and people were careful to document and save what they could on cuneiform tablets. It’s ironic that almost 4,000 years ago people were thinking about cultural preservation, [emphasis mine] and actively preserving their learning for future generations.”.

This business about ancient peoples trying to preserve culture and learning for future generations suggests that the efforts in Palmyra, Syria (my April 6, 2016 post about 3D printing parts of Palmyra) are born of an age-old impulse. And then the story takes another turn and becomes a 3D printing story (from the Yale University news release),

Today, however, the tablet is a fragile lump of clay that would not survive routine handling in a classroom. In looking for alternatives that might bring the highlights of the Babylonian Collection to a wider audience, the collection’s curators partnered with Yale’s Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage (IPCH) to bring the objects into the digital world.

Scanning at the IPCH

The IPCH Digitization Lab’s first step was to do reflectance transformation imaging (RTI) on each of fourteen Babylonian Collection objects. RTI is a photographic technique that enables a student or researcher to look at a subject with many different lighting angles. That’s particularly important for something like a cuneiform tablet, where there are complex 3D marks incised into the surface. With RTI you can freely manipulate the lighting, and see subtle surface variations that no ordinary photograph would reveal.

Chelsea Graham of the IPCH Digitization Lab and her colleague Yang Ying Yang of the Yale Computer Graphics Group then did laser scanning of the tablet to create a three-dimensional geometric model that can be freely rotated onscreen. The resulting 3D models can be combined with many other types of digital imaging to give researchers and students a virtual tablet onscreen, and the same data can be use to create a 3D printed facsimile that can be freely used in the classroom without risk to the delicate original.
3D printing digital materials

While virtual models on the computer screen have proved to be a valuable teaching and research resource, even the most accurate 3D model on a computer screen doesn’t convey the tactile  impact, and physicality of the real object. Yale’s Center for Engineering Innovation and Design has collaborated with the IPCH on a number of cultural heritage projects, and the center’s assistant director, Joseph Zinter, has used its 3D printing expertise on a wide range of engineering, basic science, and cultural heritage projects.

“Whether it’s a sculpture, a rare skull, or a microscopic neuron or molecule highly magnified, you can pick up a 3D printed model and hold it, and it’s a very different and important way to understand the data. Holding something in your hand is a distinctive learning experience,” notes Zinter.

Sharing cultural heritage projects in the digital world

Once a cultural artifact has entered the digital world there are practical problems with how to share the information with students and scholars. IPCH postdoctoral fellows Goze Akoglu and Eleni Kotoula are working with Yale computer science faculty member Holly Rushmeier to create an integrated collaborative software platform to support the research and sharing of cultural heritage artifacts like the Babylonian tablet.

“Right now cultural heritage professionals must juggle many kinds of software, running several types of specialized 2D and 3D media viewers as well as conventional word processing and graphics programs. Our vision is to create a single virtual environment that accommodates many kinds of media, as well as supporting communication and annotation within the project,” says Kotoula.

The wide sharing and disseminating of cultural artifacts is one advantage of digitizing objects, notes professor Rushmeier, “but the key thing about digital is the power to study large virtual collections. It’s not about scanning and modeling the individual object. When the scanned object becomes part of a large collection of digital data, then machine learning and search analysis tools can be run over the collection, allowing scholars to ask questions and make comparisons that aren’t possible by other means,” says Rushmeier.

Reflecting on the process that brings state-of-the-art digital tools to one of humanity’s oldest forms of writing, Graham said “It strikes me that this tablet has made a very long journey from classroom to classroom. People sometimes think the digital or 3D-printed models are just a novelty, or just for exhibitions, but you can engage and interact much more with the 3D printed object, or 3D model on the screen. I think the creators of this tablet would have appreciated the efforts to bring this fragile object back to the classroom.”

There is also a video highlighting the work,

Split some water molecules and save solar and wind (energy) for a future day

Professor Ted Sargent’s research team at the University of Toronto has a developed a new technique for saving the energy harvested by sun and wind farms according to a March 28, 2016 news item on Nanotechnology Now,

We can’t control when the wind blows and when the sun shines, so finding efficient ways to store energy from alternative sources remains an urgent research problem. Now, a group of researchers led by Professor Ted Sargent at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering may have a solution inspired by nature.

The team has designed the most efficient catalyst for storing energy in chemical form, by splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen, just like plants do during photosynthesis. Oxygen is released harmlessly into the atmosphere, and hydrogen, as H2, can be converted back into energy using hydrogen fuel cells.

Discovering a better way of storing energy from solar and wind farms is “one of the grand challenges in this field,” Ted Sargent says (photo above by Megan Rosenbloom via flickr) Courtesy: University of Toronto

Discovering a better way of storing energy from solar and wind farms is “one of the grand challenges in this field,” Ted Sargent says (photo above by Megan Rosenbloom via flickr) Courtesy: University of Toronto

A March 24, 2016 University of Toronto news release by Marit Mitchell, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

“Today on a solar farm or a wind farm, storage is typically provided with batteries. But batteries are expensive, and can typically only store a fixed amount of energy,” says Sargent. “That’s why discovering a more efficient and highly scalable means of storing energy generated by renewables is one of the grand challenges in this field.”

You may have seen the popular high-school science demonstration where the teacher splits water into its component elements, hydrogen and oxygen, by running electricity through it. Today this requires so much electrical input that it’s impractical to store energy this way — too great proportion of the energy generated is lost in the process of storing it.

This new catalyst facilitates the oxygen-evolution portion of the chemical reaction, making the conversion from H2O into O2 and H2 more energy-efficient than ever before. The intrinsic efficiency of the new catalyst material is over three times more efficient than the best state-of-the-art catalyst.

Details are offered in the news release,

The new catalyst is made of abundant and low-cost metals tungsten, iron and cobalt, which are much less expensive than state-of-the-art catalysts based on precious metals. It showed no signs of degradation over more than 500 hours of continuous activity, unlike other efficient but short-lived catalysts. …

“With the aid of theoretical predictions, we became convinced that including tungsten could lead to a better oxygen-evolving catalyst. Unfortunately, prior work did not show how to mix tungsten homogeneously with the active metals such as iron and cobalt,” says one of the study’s lead authors, Dr. Bo Zhang … .

“We invented a new way to distribute the catalyst homogenously in a gel, and as a result built a device that works incredibly efficiently and robustly.”

This research united engineers, chemists, materials scientists, mathematicians, physicists, and computer scientists across three countries. A chief partner in this joint theoretical-experimental studies was a leading team of theorists at Stanford University and SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory under the leadership of Dr. Aleksandra Vojvodic. The international collaboration included researchers at East China University of Science & Technology, Tianjin University, Brookhaven National Laboratory, Canadian Light Source and the Beijing Synchrotron Radiation Facility.

“The team developed a new materials synthesis strategy to mix multiple metals homogeneously — thereby overcoming the propensity of multi-metal mixtures to separate into distinct phases,” said Jeffrey C. Grossman, the Morton and Claire Goulder and Family Professor in Environmental Systems at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “This work impressively highlights the power of tightly coupled computational materials science with advanced experimental techniques, and sets a high bar for such a combined approach. It opens new avenues to speed progress in efficient materials for energy conversion and storage.”

“This work demonstrates the utility of using theory to guide the development of improved water-oxidation catalysts for further advances in the field of solar fuels,” said Gary Brudvig, a professor in the Department of Chemistry at Yale University and director of the Yale Energy Sciences Institute.

“The intensive research by the Sargent group in the University of Toronto led to the discovery of oxy-hydroxide materials that exhibit electrochemically induced oxygen evolution at the lowest overpotential and show no degradation,” said University Professor Gabor A. Somorjai of the University of California, Berkeley, a leader in this field. “The authors should be complimented on the combined experimental and theoretical studies that led to this very important finding.”

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

Homogeneously dispersed, multimetal oxygen-evolving catalysts by Bo Zhang, Xueli Zheng, Oleksandr Voznyy, Riccardo Comin, Michal Bajdich, Max García-Melchor, Lili Han, Jixian Xu, Min Liu, Lirong Zheng, F. Pelayo García de Arquer, Cao Thang Dinh, Fengjia Fan, Mingjian Yuan, Emre Yassitepe, Ning Chen, Tom Regier, Pengfei Liu, Yuhang Li, Phil De Luna, Alyf Janmohamed, Huolin L. Xin, Huagui Yang, Aleksandra Vojvodic, Edward H. Sargent. Science  24 Mar 2016: DOI: 10.1126/science.aaf1525

This paper is behind a paywall.

Finding a way to prevent sunscreens from penetrating the skin

While nanosunscreens have been singled out for their possible impact on our health, the fact is many sunscreens contain dangerous ingredients penetrating the skin. A Dec. 14, 2015 news item on ScienceDaily describes some research into getting sunscreens to stay on the skin surface avoiding penetration,

A new sunscreen has been developed that encapsulates the UV-blocking compounds inside bio-adhesive nanoparticles, which adhere to the skin well, but do not penetrate beyond the skin’s surface. These properties resulted in highly effective UV protection in a mouse model, without the adverse effects observed with commercial sunscreens, including penetration into the bloodstream and generation of reactive oxygen species, which can damage DNA and lead to cancer.

A US National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB) Dec. 14, 2015 news release, which originated the news item, expands on the theme (Note: Links have been removed),

Commercial sunscreens use compounds that effectively filter out damaging UV light. However, there is concern that these agents have a variety of harmful effects due to penetration past the surface skin. For example, these products have been found in human breast tissue and urine and are known to disrupt the normal function of some hormones. Also, the exposure of the UV filters to light can produce toxic reactive oxygen species that are destructive to cells and tissues and can cause tumors through DNA damage.

“This work applies a novel bioengineering idea to a little known but significant health problem, adds Jessica Tucker, Ph.D., Director of the NIBIB Program in Delivery Systems and Devices for Drugs and Biologics. “While we are all familiar with the benefits of sunscreen, the potential toxicities from sunscreen due to penetration into the body and creation of DNA-damaging agents are not well known. Bioengineering sunscreen to inhibit penetration and keep any DNA-damaging compounds isolated in the nanoparticle and away from the skin is a great example of how a sophisticated technology can be used to solve a problem affecting the health of millions of people.”

Bioengineers and dermatologists at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut combined their expertise in nanoparticle-based drug delivery and the molecular and cellular characteristics of the skin to address these potential health hazards of current commercial sunscreens.

The news release then goes on to provide some technical details,

The group encapsulated a commonly used sunscreen, padimate O (PO), inside a nanoparticle (a very small molecule often used to transport drugs and other agents into the body). PO is related to the better-known sunscreen PABA.

The bioadhesive nanoparticle containing the sunscreen PO was tested on pigs for penetration into the skin. A control group of pigs received the PO alone, not encapsulated in a nanoparticle. The PO penetrated beyond the surface layers of skin where it could potentially enter the bloodstream through blood vessels that are in the deeper skin layers. However, the PO inside the nanoparticle remained on the surface of the skin and did not penetrate into deeper layers.

Because the bioadhesive nanoparticles, or BNPs are larger than skin pores it was somewhat expected that they could not enter the body by that route. However, skin is full of hair follicles that are larger than BNPs and so could be a way for migration into the body. Surprisingly, BNPs did not pass through the hair follicle openings either. Tests indicated that the adhesive properties of the BNPs caused them to stick to the skin surface, unable to move through the hair follicles.

Further testing showed that the BNPs were water resistant and remained on the skin for a day or more, yet were easily removed by towel wiping. They also disappeared in several days through natural exfoliation of the surface skin.

BNPs enhance the effect of sunscreen

An important test was whether the BNP-encapsulated sunscreen retained its UV filtering properties. The researchers used a mouse model to test whether PO blocked sunburn when encapsulated in the BNPs. The BNP formulation successfully provided the same amount of UV protection as the commercial products applied directly to the skin of the hairless mouse model. Surprisingly, this was achieved even though the BNPs carried only a fraction (5%) of the amount of commercial sunblock applied to the mice.

Finally, the encapsulated sunscreen was tested for the formation of damaging oxygen-carrying molecules known as reactive oxygen species, (ROS) when exposed to UV light. The researchers hypothesized that any ROS created by the sunscreen’s interaction with UV would stay contained inside the BNP, unable to damage surrounding tissue. Following exposure to UV light, no damaging ROS were detected outside of the nanoparticle, indicating that any harmful agents that were formed remained inside of the nanoparticle, unable to make contact with the skin.

“We are extremely pleased with the properties and performance of our BNP formulation,” says senior author Mark Saltzman, Ph.D., Yale School of Engineering and Applied Science. “The sunscreen loaded BNPs combine the best properties of an effective sunscreen with a safety profile that alleviates the potential toxicities of the actual sunscreen product because it is encapsulated and literally never touches the skin.” Adds co-senior author, Michael Girardi, M.D. “Our nanoparticles performed as expected, however, these are preclinical findings. We are now in a position to assess the effects on human skin.”

So, all of this work has been done on animal models, which means that human clinical trials are the likely next step. As we wait, here’s a link to and a citation for this group’s paper,

A sunblock based on bioadhesive nanoparticles by Yang Deng, Asiri Ediriwickrema, Fan Yang, Julia Lewis, Michael Girardi, & W. Mark Saltzman. Nature Materials 14, 1278–1285 (2015) doi:10.1038/nmat4422 Published online 28 September 2015

This paper is behind a paywall.

Safer sunblock and bioadhesive nanoparticles from Yale University

The skin has a lot of protective barriers but it’s always possible to make something better so a sunblock that doesn’t penetrate the* skin at all seems like it might be a good thing. Interestingly, this new sunblock or sunscreen is enabled by nanoparticles but not the metallic nanoparticles found in what are sometimes called nanosunscreens. From a Sept. 29, 2015 news item on Nanowerk,

Researchers at Yale have developed a sunscreen that doesn’t penetrate the skin, eliminating serious health concerns associated with commercial sunscreens.

Most commercial sunblocks are good at preventing sunburn, but they can go below the skin’s surface and enter the bloodstream. As a result, they pose possible hormonal side effects and could even be promoting the kind of skin cancers they’re designed to prevent.

But researchers at Yale have developed a new sunblock, made with bioadhesive nanoparticles, that stays on the surface of the skin.

A Sept. 28, 2015 Yale University news release by William Weir, whch originated the news item, describes the research in more detail,

“We found that when we apply the sunblock to the skin, it doesn’t come off, and more importantly, it doesn’t penetrate any further into the skin,” said the paper’s senior author, Mark Saltzman, the Goizueta Foundation Professor of Biomedical Engineering. “Nanoparticles are large enough to keep from going through the skin’s surface, and our nanoparticles are so adhesive that they don’t even go into hair follicles, which are relatively open.”

Using mouse models, the researchers tested their sunblock against direct ultraviolet rays and their ability to cause sunburn. In this regard, even though it used a significantly smaller amount of the active ingredient than commercial sunscreens, the researchers’ formulation protected equally well against sunburn.

They also looked at an indirect — and much less studied — effect of UV light. When the active ingredients of sunscreen absorb UV light, a chemical change triggers the generation of oxygen-carrying molecules known as reactive oxygen species (ROS). If a sunscreen’s agents penetrate the skin, this chemical change could cause cellular damage, and potentially facilitate skin cancer.

“Commercial chemical sunblock is protective against the direct hazards of ultraviolet damage of DNA, but might not be against the indirect ones,” said co-author Michael Girardi, a professor of dermatology at Yale Medical School. “In fact, the indirect damage was worse when we used the commercial sunblock.”

Girardi, who specializes in skin cancer development and progression, said little research has been done on the ultimate effects of sunblock usage and the generation of ROS, “but obviously, there’s concern there.”

Previous studies have found traces of commercial sunscreen chemicals in users’ bloodstreams, urine, and breast milk. There is evidence that these chemicals cause disruptions with the endocrine system, such as blocking sex hormone receptors.

To test penetration levels, the researchers applied strips of adhesive tape to skin previously treated with sunscreen. The tape was then removed rapidly, along with a thin layer of skin. Repeating this procedure allowed the researchers to remove the majority of the outer skin layer, and measure how deep the chemicals had penetrated into the skin. Traces of the sunscreen chemical administered in a conventional way were found to have soaked deep within the skin. The Yale team’s sunblock came off entirely with the initial tape strips.

Tests also showed that a substantial amount of the Yale team’s sunscreen remained on the skin’s surface for days, even after exposure to water. When wiped repeatedly with a towel, the new sunblock was entirely removed. [emphasis mine]

To make the sunblock, the researchers developed a nanoparticle with a surface coating rich in aldehyde groups, which stick tenaciously to the outer skin layer. The nanoparticle’s hydrophilic layer essentially locks in the active ingredient, a hydrophobic chemical called padimate O.

Some sunscreen solutions that use larger particles of inorganic compounds, such as titanium dioxide or zinc oxide, also don’t penetrate the skin. For aesthetic reasons, though, these opaque sunscreen products aren’t very popular. By using a nanoparticle to encase padimate O, an organic chemical used in many commercial sunscreens, the Yale team’s sunblock is both transparent and stays out of the skin cells and bloodstream.

This seems a little confusing to me and I think clarification may be helpful. My understanding is that the metallic nanoparticles (nano titanium dioxide and nano zinc oxide) engineered for use in commercial sunscreens are also (in addition to the macroscale titanium dioxide and zinc oxide referred to in the Yale news release) too large to pass through the skin. At least that was the understanding in 2010 and I haven’t stumbled across any information that is contradictory. Here’s an excerpt from a July 20, 2010 posting where I featured portions of a debate between Georgia Miller (at that time representing Friends of the Earth) and Dr. Andrew Maynard (at that time director of the University of Michigan Risk Science Center and a longtime participant in the nanotechnology risk discussions),

Three of the scientists whose work was cited by FoE as proof that nanosunscreens are dangerous either posted directly or asked Andrew to post comments which clarified the situation with exquisite care,

Despite FoE’s implications that nanoparticles in sunscreens might cause cancer because they are photoactive, Peter Dobson points out that there are nanomaterials used in sunscreens that are designed not to be photoactive. Brian Gulson, who’s work on zinc skin penetration was cited by FoE, points out that his studies only show conclusively that zinc atoms or ions can pass through the skin, not that nanoparticles can pass through. He also notes that the amount of zinc penetration from zinc-based sunscreens is very much lower than the level of zinc people have in their body in the first place. Tilman Butz, who led one of the largest projects on nanoparticle penetration through skin to date, points out that – based on current understanding – the nanoparticles used in sunscreens are too large to penetrate through the skin.

However, there may be other ingredients which do pass through into the bloodstream and are concerning.

One other thing I’d like to note. Not being able to remove the sunscreen easily ( “When wiped repeatedly with a towel, the new sunblock was entirely removed.”) may prove to be a problem as we need Vitamin D, which is for the most part obtainable by sun exposure.

In any event, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

A sunblock based on bioadhesive nanoparticles by Yang Deng, Asiri Ediriwickrema, Fan Yang, Julia Lewis, Michael Girardi, & W. Mark Saltzman. Nature Materials (2015) doi:10.1038/nmat4422 Published online 28 September 2015

This paper is behind a paywall.

*’teh’ changed to ‘the’ on June 6, 2016.

Replace silicon with black phosphorus instead of graphene?

I have two black phosphorus pieces. This first piece of research comes out of ‘La belle province’ or, as it’s more usually called, Québec (Canada).

Foundational research on phosphorene

There’s a lot of interest in replacing silicon for a number of reasons and, increasingly, there’s interest in finding an alternative to graphene.

A July 7, 2015 news item on Nanotechnology Now describes a new material for use as transistors,

As scientists continue to hunt for a material that will make it possible to pack more transistors on a chip, new research from McGill University and Université de Montréal adds to evidence that black phosphorus could emerge as a strong candidate.

In a study published today in Nature Communications, the researchers report that when electrons move in a phosphorus transistor, they do so only in two dimensions. The finding suggests that black phosphorus could help engineers surmount one of the big challenges for future electronics: designing energy-efficient transistors.

A July 7, 2015 McGill University news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, describes the field of 2D materials and the research into black phosphorus and its 2D version, phosperene (analogous to graphite and graphene),

“Transistors work more efficiently when they are thin, with electrons moving in only two dimensions,” says Thomas Szkopek, an associate professor in McGill’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and senior author of the new study. “Nothing gets thinner than a single layer of atoms.”

In 2004, physicists at the University of Manchester in the U.K. first isolated and explored the remarkable properties of graphene — a one-atom-thick layer of carbon. Since then scientists have rushed to to investigate a range of other two-dimensional materials. One of those is black phosphorus, a form of phosphorus that is similar to graphite and can be separated easily into single atomic layers, known as phosphorene.

Phosphorene has sparked growing interest because it overcomes many of the challenges of using graphene in electronics. Unlike graphene, which acts like a metal, black phosphorus is a natural semiconductor: it can be readily switched on and off.

“To lower the operating voltage of transistors, and thereby reduce the heat they generate, we have to get closer and closer to designing the transistor at the atomic level,” Szkopek says. “The toolbox of the future for transistor designers will require a variety of atomic-layered materials: an ideal semiconductor, an ideal metal, and an ideal dielectric. All three components must be optimized for a well designed transistor. Black phosphorus fills the semiconducting-material role.”

The work resulted from a multidisciplinary collaboration among Szkopek’s nanoelectronics research group, the nanoscience lab of McGill Physics Prof. Guillaume Gervais, and the nanostructures research group of Prof. Richard Martel in Université de Montréal’s Department of Chemistry.

To examine how the electrons move in a phosphorus transistor, the researchers observed them under the influence of a magnetic field in experiments performed at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory in Tallahassee, FL, the largest and highest-powered magnet laboratory in the world. This research “provides important insights into the fundamental physics that dictate the behavior of black phosphorus,” says Tim Murphy, DC Field Facility Director at the Florida facility.

“What’s surprising in these results is that the electrons are able to be pulled into a sheet of charge which is two-dimensional, even though they occupy a volume that is several atomic layers in thickness,” Szkopek says. That finding is significant because it could potentially facilitate manufacturing the material — though at this point “no one knows how to manufacture this material on a large scale.”

“There is a great emerging interest around the world in black phosphorus,” Szkopek says. “We are still a long way from seeing atomic layer transistors in a commercial product, but we have now moved one step closer.”

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

Two-dimensional magnetotransport in a black phosphorus naked quantum well by V. Tayari, N. Hemsworth, I. Fakih, A. Favron, E. Gaufrès, G. Gervais, R. Martel & T. Szkopek. Nature Communications 6, Article number: 7702 doi:10.1038/ncomms8702 Published 07 July 2015

This is an open access paper.

The second piece of research into black phosphorus is courtesy of an international collaboration.

A phosporene transistor

A July 9, 2015 Technical University of Munich (TUM) press release (also on EurekAlert) describes the formation of a phosphorene transistor made possible by the introduction of arsenic,

Chemists at the Technische Universität München (TUM) have now developed a semiconducting material in which individual phosphorus atoms are replaced by arsenic. In a collaborative international effort, American colleagues have built the first field-effect transistors from the new material.

For many decades silicon has formed the basis of modern electronics. To date silicon technology could provide ever tinier transistors for smaller and smaller devices. But the size of silicon transistors is reaching its physical limit. Also, consumers would like to have flexible devices, devices that can be incorporated into clothing and the likes. However, silicon is hard and brittle. All this has triggered a race for new materials that might one day replace silicon.

Black arsenic phosphorus might be such a material. Like graphene, which consists of a single layer of carbon atoms, it forms extremely thin layers. The array of possible applications ranges from transistors and sensors to mechanically flexible semiconductor devices. Unlike graphene, whose electronic properties are similar to those of metals, black arsenic phosphorus behaves like a semiconductor.

The press release goes on to provide more detail about the collaboration and the research,

A cooperation between the Technical University of Munich and the University of Regensburg on the German side and the University of Southern California (USC) and Yale University in the United States has now, for the first time, produced a field effect transistor made of black arsenic phosphorus. The compounds were synthesized by Marianne Koepf at the laboratory of the research group for Synthesis and Characterization of Innovative Materials at the TUM. The field effect transistors were built and characterized by a group headed by Professor Zhou and Dr. Liu at the Department of Electrical Engineering at USC.

The new technology developed at TUM allows the synthesis of black arsenic phosphorus without high pressure. This requires less energy and is cheaper. The gap between valence and conduction bands can be precisely controlled by adjusting the arsenic concentration. “This allows us to produce materials with previously unattainable electronic and optical properties in an energy window that was hitherto inaccessible,” says Professor Tom Nilges, head of the research group for Synthesis and Characterization of Innovative Materials.

Detectors for infrared

With an arsenic concentration of 83 percent the material exhibits an extremely small band gap of only 0.15 electron volts, making it predestined for sensors which can detect long wavelength infrared radiation. LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) sensors operate in this wavelength range, for example. They are used, among other things, as distance sensors in automobiles. Another application is the measurement of dust particles and trace gases in environmental monitoring.

A further interesting aspect of these new, two-dimensional semiconductors is their anisotropic electronic and optical behavior. The material exhibits different characteristics along the x- and y-axes in the same plane. To produce graphene like films the material can be peeled off in ultra thin layers. The thinnest films obtained so far are only two atomic layers thick.

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

Black Arsenic–Phosphorus: Layered Anisotropic Infrared Semiconductors with Highly Tunable Compositions and Properties by Bilu Liu, Marianne Köpf, Ahmad N. Abbas, Xiaomu Wang, Qiushi Guo, Yichen Jia, Fengnian Xia, Richard Weihrich, Frederik Bachhuber, Florian Pielnhofer, Han Wang, Rohan Dhall, Stephen B. Cronin, Mingyuan Ge1 Xin Fang, Tom Nilges, and Chongwu Zhou. DOI: 10.1002/adma.201501758 Article first published online: 25 JUN 2015

© 2015 WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

This paper is behind a paywall.

Dexter Johnson, on his Nanoclast blog (on the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers website), adds more information about black phosphorus and its electrical properties in his July 9, 2015 posting about the Germany/US collaboration (Note: Links have been removed),

Black phosphorus has been around for about 100 years, but recently it has been synthesized as a two-dimensional material—dubbed phosphorene in reference to its two-dimensional cousin, graphene. Black phosphorus is quite attractive for electronic applications like field-effect transistors because of its inherent band gap and it is one of the few 2-D materials to be a natively p-type semiconductor.

One final comment, I notice the Germany-US work was published weeks prior to the Canadian research suggesting that the TUM July 9, 2015 press release is an attempt to capitalize on the interest generated by the Canadian research. That’s a smart move.

Nanomaterials and safety: Europe’s non-governmental agencies make recommendations; (US) Arizona State University initiative; and Japan’s voluntary carbon nanotube management

I have three news items which have one thing in common, they concern nanomaterials and safety. Two of these of items are fairly recent; the one about Japan has been sitting in my drafts folder for months and I’m including it here because if I don’t do it now, I never will.

First, there’s an April 7, 2014 news item on Nanowerk (h/t) about European non-governmental agencies (CIEL; the Center for International Environmental Law and its partners) and their recommendations regarding nanomaterials and safety. From the CIEL April 2014 news release,

CIEL and European partners* publish position paper on the regulation of nanomaterials at a meeting of EU competent authorities

*ClientEarth, The European Environmental Bureau, European citizen’s Organization for Standardisation, The European consumer voice in Standardisation –ANEC, and Health Care Without Harm, Bureau of European Consumers

… Current EU legislation does not guarantee that all nanomaterials on the market are safe by being assessed separately from the bulk form of the substance. Therefore, we ask the European Commission to come forward with concrete proposals for a comprehensive revision of the existing legal framework addressing the potential risks of nanomaterials.

1. Nanomaterials are different from other substances.

We are concerned that EU law does not take account of the fact that nano forms of a substance are different and have different intrinsic properties from their bulk counterpart. Therefore, we call for this principle to be explicitly established in the REACH, and Classification Labeling and Packaging (CLP) regulations, as well as in all other relevant legislation. To ensure adequate consideration, the submission of comprehensive substance identity and characterization data for all nanomaterials on the market, as defined by the Commission’s proposal for a nanomaterial definition, should be required.

Similarly, we call on the European Commission and EU Member States to ensure that nanomaterials do not benefit from the delays granted under REACH to phase-in substances, on the basis of information collected on their bulk form.

Further, nanomaterials, due to their properties, are generally much more reactive than their bulk counterpart, thereby increasing the risk of harmful impact of nanomaterials compared to an equivalent mass of bulk material. Therefore, the present REACH thresholds for the registration of nanomaterials should be lowered.

Before 2018, all nanomaterials on the market produced in amounts of over 10kg/year must be registered with ECHA on the basis of a full registration dossier specific to the nanoform.

2. Risk from nanomaterials must be assessed

Six years after the entry into force of the REACH registration requirements, only nine substances have been registered as nanomaterials despite the much wider number of substances already on the EU market, as demonstrated by existing inventories. Furthermore, the poor quality of those few nano registration dossiers does not enable their risks to be properly assessed. To confirm the conclusions of the Commission’s nano regulatory review assuming that not all nanomaterials are toxic, relevant EU legislation should be amended to ensure that all nanomaterials are adequately assessed for their hazardous properties.

Given the concerns about novel properties of nanomaterials, under REACH, all registration dossiers of nanomaterials must include a chemical safety assessment and must comply with the same information submission requirements currently required for substances classified as Carcinogenic, Mutagenic or Reprotoxic (CMRs).

3. Nanomaterials should be thoroughly evaluated

Pending the thorough risk assessment of nanomaterials demonstrated by comprehensive and up-to-date registration dossiers for all nanoforms on the market, we call on ECHA to systematically check compliance for all nanoforms, as well as check the compliance of all dossiers which, due to uncertainties in the description of their identity and characterization, are suspected of including substances in the nanoform. Further, the Community Roling Action Plan (CoRAP) list should include all identified substances in the nanoform and evaluation should be carried out without delay.

4. Information on nanomaterials must be collected and disseminated

All EU citizens have the right to know which products contain nanomaterials as well as the right to know about their risks to health and environment and overall level of exposure. Given the uncertainties surrounding nanomaterials, the Commission must guarantee that members of the public are in a position to exercise their right to know and to make informed choices pending thorough risk assessments of nanomaterials on the market.

Therefore, a publicly accessible inventory of nanomaterials and consumer products containing nanomaterials must be established at European level. Moreover, specific nano-labelling or declaration requirements must be established for all nano-containing products (detergents, aerosols, sprays, paints, medical devices, etc.) in addition to those applicable to food, cosmetics and biocides which are required under existing obligations.

5. REACH enforcement activities should tackle nanomaterials

REACH’s fundamental principle of “no data, no market” should be thoroughly implemented. Therefore, nanomaterials that are on the market without a meaningful minimum set of data to allow the assessment of their hazards and risks should be denied market access through enforcement activities. In the meantime, we ask the EU Member States and manufacturers to use a precautionary approach in the assessment, production, use and disposal of nanomaterials

This comes on the heels of CIEL’s March 2014 news release announcing a new three-year joint project concerning nanomaterials and safety and responsible development,

Supported by the VELUX foundations, CIEL and ECOS (the European Citizen’s Organization for Standardization) are launching a three-year project aiming to ensure that risk assessment methodologies and risk management tools help guide regulators towards the adoption of a precaution-based regulatory framework for the responsible development of nanomaterials in the EU and beyond.

Together with our project partner the German Öko-Institut, CIEL and ECOS will participate in the work of the standardization organizations Comité Européen de Normalisation and International Standards Organization, and this work of the OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development], especially related to health, environmental and safety aspects of nanomaterials and exposure and risk assessment. We will translate progress into understandable information and issue policy recommendations to guide regulators and support environmental NGOs in their campaigns for the safe and sustainable production and use of nanomaterials.

The VILLUM FOUNDATION and the VELUX FOUNDATION are non-profit foundations created by Villum Kann Rasmussen, the founder of the VELUX Group and other entities in the VKR Group, whose mission it is to bring daylight, fresh air and a better environment into people’s everyday lives.

Meanwhile in the US, an April 6, 2014 news item on Nanowerk announces a new research network, based at Arizona State University (ASU), devoted to studying health and environmental risks of nanomaterials,

Arizona State University researchers will lead a multi-university project to aid industry in understanding and predicting the potential health and environmental risks from nanomaterials.

Nanoparticles, which are approximately 1 to 100 nanometers in size, are used in an increasing number of consumer products to provide texture, resiliency and, in some cases, antibacterial protection.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has awarded a grant of $5 million over the next four years to support the LCnano Network as part of the Life Cycle of Nanomaterials project, which will focus on helping to ensure the safety of nanomaterials throughout their life cycles – from the manufacture to the use and disposal of the products that contain these engineered materials.

An April 1, 2014 ASU news release, which originated the news item, provides more details and includes information about project partners which I’m happy to note include nanoHUB and the Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network (NISENet) in addition to the other universities,

Paul Westerhoff is the LCnano Network director, as well as the associate dean of research for ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering and a professor in the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment.

The project will team engineers, chemists, toxicologists and social scientists from ASU, Johns Hopkins, Duke, Carnegie Mellon, Purdue, Yale, Oregon’s state universities, the Colorado School of Mines and the University of Illinois-Chicago.

Engineered nanomaterials of silver, titanium, silica and carbon are among the most commonly used. They are dispersed in common liquids and food products, embedded in the polymers from which many products are made and attached to textiles, including clothing.

Nanomaterials provide clear benefits for many products, Westerhoff says, but there remains “a big knowledge gap” about how, or if, nanomaterials are released from consumer products into the environment as they move through their life cycles, eventually ending up in soils and water systems.

“We hope to help industry make sure that the kinds of products that engineered nanomaterials enable them to create are safe for the environment,” Westerhoff says.

“We will develop molecular-level fundamental theories to ensure the manufacturing processes for these products is safer,” he explains, “and provide databases of measurements of the properties and behavior of nanomaterials before, during and after their use in consumer products.”

Among the bigger questions the LCnano Network will investigate are whether nanomaterials can become toxic through exposure to other materials or the biological environs they come in contact with over the course of their life cycles, Westerhoff says.

The researchers will collaborate with industry – both large and small companies – and government laboratories to find ways of reducing such uncertainties.

Among the objectives is to provide a framework for product design and manufacturing that preserves the commercial value of the products using nanomaterials, but minimizes potentially adverse environmental and health hazards.

In pursuing that goal, the network team will also be developing technologies to better detect and predict potential nanomaterial impacts.

Beyond that, the LCnano Network also plans to increase awareness about efforts to protect public safety as engineered nanomaterials in products become more prevalent.

The grant will enable the project team to develop educational programs, including a museum exhibit about nanomaterials based on the LCnano Network project. The exhibit will be deployed through a partnership with the Arizona Science Center and researchers who have worked with the Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network.

The team also plans to make information about its research progress available on the nanotechnology industry website Nanohub.org.

“We hope to use Nanohub both as an internal virtual networking tool for the research team, and as a portal to post the outcomes and products of our research for public access,” Westerhoff says.

The grant will also support the participation of graduate students in the Science Outside the Lab program, which educates students on how science and engineering research can help shape public policy.

Other ASU faculty members involved in the LCnano Network project are:

• Pierre Herckes, associate professor, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
• Kiril Hristovski, assistant professor, Department of Engineering, College of Technology and Innovation
• Thomas Seager, associate professor, School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment
• David Guston, professor and director, Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes
• Ira Bennett, assistant research professor, Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes
• Jameson Wetmore, associate professor, Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes, and School of Human Evolution and Social Change

I hope to hear more about the LCnano Network as it progresses.

Finally, there was this Nov. 12, 2013 news item on Nanowerk about instituting  voluntary safety protocols for carbon nanotubes in Japan,

Technology Research Association for Single Wall Carbon Nanotubes (TASC)—a consortium of nine companies and the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) — is developing voluntary safety management techniques for carbon nanotubes (CNTs) under the project (no. P10024) “Innovative carbon nanotubes composite materials project toward achieving a low-carbon society,” which is sponsored by the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO).

Lynn Bergeson’s Nov. 15, 2013 posting on nanotech.lawbc.com provides a few more details abut the TASC/AIST carbon nanotube project (Note: A link has been removed),

Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) announced in October 2013 a voluntary guidance document on measuring airborne carbon nanotubes (CNT) in workplaces. … The guidance summarizes the available practical methods for measuring airborne CNTs:  (1) on-line aerosol measurement; (2) off-line quantitative analysis (e.g., thermal carbon analysis); and (3) sample collection for electron microscope observation. …

You can  download two protocol documents (Guide to measuring airborne carbon nanotubes in workplaces and/or The protocols of preparation, characterization and in vitro cell based assays for safety testing of carbon nanotubes), another has been published since Nov. 2013, from the AIST’s Developing voluntary safety management techniques for carbon nanotubes (CNTs): Protocol and Guide webpage., Both documents are also available in Japanese and you can link to the Japanese language version of the site from the webpage.

Structure of color

AGELESS BRILLIANCE: Although the pigment-derived leaf color of this decades-old specimen of the African perennial Pollia condensata has faded, the fruit still maintains its intense metallic-blue iridescence.COURTESY OF P.J. RUDALL [downloaded from http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/34200/title/Color-from-Structure/]

AGELESS BRILLIANCE: Although the pigment-derived leaf color of this decades-old specimen of the African perennial Pollia condensata has faded, the fruit still maintains its intense metallic-blue iridescence.COURTESY OF P.J. RUDALL [downloaded from http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/34200/title/Color-from-Structure/]

Hard to believe those berries were collected more than four decades ago, according to Cristina Luiggi in her Feb. 1, 2013 article, Color from Structure, for The Scientist magazine. Her focus is on biological nanostructures and it is a fascinating article which I urge you to read in its entirety if you have the time and this kind of thing interests you. As you can see, the pictures are great.

Here are a few excerpts from the piece,

Colors may be evolution’s most beautiful accident. Spontaneous mutations that perturbed the arrangement of structural components, such as cellulose, collagen, chitin, and keratin, inadvertently created nanoscale landscapes that catch light in the most vibrantly diverse ways—producing iridescent greens, fiery reds, brilliant blues, opalescent whites, glossy silvers, and ebony blacks.

Structural colors, in contrast to those produced by pigments or dyes, arise from the physical interaction of light with biological nanostructures. These color-creating structures likely developed as an important phenotype during the Cambrian explosion more than 500 million years ago, when organisms developed the first eyes and the ability to detect light, color, shade, and contrast. “As soon as you had visual predators, there were organisms that were either trying to distract, avoid, or communicate with those predators using structural coloration,” says Yale University evolutionary ornithologist Richard Prum.

Ever since, structural coloration has evolved multiple times across the tree of life, as a wide range of organisms developed ways to fine-tune the geometry of some of the most abundant (and often colorless) biomaterials on Earth, engineering grooves, pockets, and films that scatter light waves and cause them to interfere with each other in ways we humans happen to find aesthetically pleasing.

Here’s why color derived from structure doesn’t fade, from Luiggi’s article,

Pigments and dyes are molecules that produce colors by the selective absorption and reflection of specific wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation. Structural colors, on the other hand, rely exclusively on the shape of the material and not its chemical properties. While pigments and dyes degrade and their colors fade over time, some types of structural coloration, which rely on the same materials that make up tree bark, insect exoskeletons, and claws or nails, can persist hundreds, thousands, and even millions of years after the death of the organism.

Structural color can be found in a lot of plant life,

Although there are only a handful of known examples of structural colors in fruits, there are plenty to be found in the leaves and petals of plants. Within every family of flowering plants, there is at least one species that displays structural colors.

“The presence of structural colors, especially in flowers, is likely used by pollinators to spot the position of the flower and to recognize it better,” Vignolini [Silvia Vignolini, a physics postdoc at the University of Cambridge] explains. But in some plants, the evolutionary purpose of structural coloration is harder to pin down. The leaves of the low-lying tropical spikemoss Selaginella willdenowii, for example, produce blue-green iridescence when young and growing in the shade, and tend to lose the structural coloration with age and when exposed to high levels of light. The iridescence is achieved by cells in the leaves’ upper epidermis, which contain a few layers of cellulose microfibrils packed with different amounts of water. This ultrastructure is often absent in the leaves of the same species growing in direct sunlight. Researchers hypothesize that the spikemoss turns off its iridescence by changing the water content of the leaves’ cell walls, says Heather Whitney, a research fellow at the University of Bristol who studies iridescence in plants.

This capability is not limited to plants. Insects (jewel beetles and the morpho butterfly are often cited) and fish also have evolved to include structural color as protective or attractive devices, from Luiggi’s article,

The brightest living tissues on the planet are found in fish. Under ideal conditions, for example, the silvery scales of the European sardine and the Atlantic herring can act like near-perfect mirrors—reflecting up to 90 percent of incoming light. It is an irony of nature that these shiniest of structures are not meant to be flaunted, but are intended as camouflage.

“When you’re out in the open water, if you drop down below 10 to 30 meters, in any direction you look, the intensity of light is the same,” explains Nicholas Roberts, a physicist at the University of Bristol who specializes in bio-optics. At that depth, a perfect reflector, or mirror, would seem invisible, because light is equally reflected from all sides and angles.

It will be interesting to see if there’s any future discussion of the giant squid in the context of structural color since, according to very recent research (as per my Feb. 1, 2013 posting), it appears to be covered in gold leaf when observed in its habitat.

Luiggi’s article starts with an ornithologist and circles back in a discussion about the difficulty of creating nanostructures, soft matter condensed physics, and birds,

To create structural colors, organisms must master architecture at the nanoscale—the size of visible-light wavelengths. “But it turns out that biology doesn’t do a good job of creating nanostructures,” Prum says.

Instead, organisms create the initial conditions that allow those nanostructures to grow using self-organizing physical processes. Thus, organisms exploit what’s known as soft condensed matter physics, or “the physics of squishy stuff,” as Prum likes to call it. This relatively new field of physics deals with materials that are right at the boundaries of hard solids, liquids, and gases.

“There’ve been huge advances in this field in the last 30 years which have created rich theories of how structure can arise at the nanoscale,” Prum says. “It has been very applicable to the understanding of how structural colors grow.”

Soft condensed matter physics has been particularly useful in understanding the production of the amorphous nanostructures that imbue the feathers of certain bird species with intensely vibrant hues. The blue color of the male Eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis), for example, is produced by the selective scattering of blue light from a complex nanostructure of b-keratin channels and air pockets in the hairlike branches called feather barbs that give the quill its lift. The size of the air pockets determines the wavelengths that are selectively amplified.

While there’s better understanding of the mechanisms involved in structural color, scientists are a long way from replicating the processes, from the article,

“The three-dimensional nature of the structures themselves is just so complex,” says Vukusic. [physicist Peter Vukusic, a professor of natural photonics at the University of Exeter, UK] “Were it to be a simple periodic system with a regular geometry, you could easily put that into a computer model and run simulations all day. But the problem is that they are never perfectly periodic.”

This article is open access so, as I noted earlier, all you need is the time. As of my Feb. 6, 2013 posting, there was some new research announced about scientists making observations about the structural color in peacock feathers and applying some of those ideas to develop better resolution in e-readers.

Phyto-mining; using plants to extract minerals

Plants do it anyway, so, why not harness their ability to absorb nutrients and transform them into various materials for the mining industry? In the scientists at the University of York (UK) mentioned in a Sept. 20, 2012 news item on Nanowerk are doing precisely that,

Scientists at the University of York are to lead an international team that will explore the use of plants to recover precious metals from mine tailings around the world.

Researchers in the University’s Green Chemistry Centre of Excellence and the Centre for Novel Agricultural Products (CNAP) aim to develop ways to extract platinum group metals (PGM) discarded during mine processing which might then be used in catalysis. The research will investigate “phyto-mining,” which involves growing plants on mine waste materials to sponge up PGM into their cellular structure.

Initial studies show that plant cells used to phyto-mine PGM can be turned into materials for a variety of industrial applications – the one in most demand being catalytic converters for vehicle emissions control.

The Sept. 20, 2012 University of York news release (which originated the news item) notes,

The $1.4 million PHYTOCAT project is supported by the G8 Research Councils Initiative on Multilateral Research Funding. The team is led by the University of York in the UK with support from Yale University, the University of British Columbia and Massey University in New Zealand. [emphasis mine]

Professor James Clark, the Director of the Green Chemistry Centre of Excellence at York, says: “We are looking at ways of turning these residual metals into their catalytically active form using the plants to extract them from the mine waste. The plant is heated in a controlled way with the result that the metal is embedded in a nano-form in the carbonised plant.

“The trick is to control the decomposition of the plant in a way which keeps the metal in its nano-particulate or catalytically active form. Catalysis is being used more and more in industrial processes and particularly for emission control because of the demand for cleaners cars, so ‘phyto-mining’ could provide a sustainable supply of catalytically active metals.”

For PGM phyto-mining, the researchers will investigate plants known as hyperaccumulators which include about 400 species from more than 40 plant families. Plants such as willow, corn and mustard have evolved a resistance to specific metals and can accumulate relatively large amounts of these metals, which once absorbed into the plants’ cellular structure form nano-scale clusters than can then be used directly as a catalyst.

Professor Neil Bruce, of CNAP, added: “The ability of plants to extract PGMs from soil and redeposit the metal as nanoparticles in cells is remarkable. This project will allow us to investigate the mechanisms behind this process and provide a green method for extracting metals from mine tailings that are currently uneconomical to recover.”

(It makes sense that the University of British Columbia from my home province is participating, given the province’s heavy involvement in the mining industry.)

This proposed phyto-mining process has much in common with phytoremediation where plants are grown in polluted areas so they can absorb the pollutants from the soil as per my March 30, 2012 posting, which featured a guest writer, Joe Martin on the topic of phytoremediation.

I wonder what they will be doing to the plants for make them more suitable for the phyto-mining process.

Uncomfortable truths; favouring males a gender bias practiced by male and female scientists

Nancy Owano’s Sept. 21, 2012 phy.org article on a study about gender bias (early publication Sept. 17, 2012 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) describes a situation that can be summed up with this saying ‘we women eat our own’.

The Yale University researchers developed applications for a supposed position in a science faculty and had faculty members assess the applicants’ paper submissions.  From Owano’s article,

Applications were all identical except for the male names and female names. Even though the male and female name applications were identical in competencies, the female student was less likely to be hired, being viewed as less competent and desirable as a new-hire.

Results further showed the faculty members chose higher starting salaries and more career mentoring for applicants with male names.

Interestingly, it made no difference on hiring decisions as to whether the faculty member was male or female. Bias was just as likely to occur at the hands of a female as well as male faculty member.

I tracked down the paper (which is open access), Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students by Corinne A. Moss-Racusin, John F. Dovidio, Victoria L. Bescroll, Mark J. Graham, and Jo Handelsman and found some figures in a table which I can’t reproduce here but suggest the saying ‘we women eat their own’ isn’t far off the mark. In it, you’ll see that while women faculty members will offer less to both genders, they offer significantly less to female applicants.

For a male applicant, here’s the salary offer,

Male Faculty               Female Faculty

30,520.82                    29, 333.33

 

For a female applicant, here’s the salary offer,

Male Faculty               Female Faculty

27,111.11                    25,000.00

To sum this up, the men offered approximately $3000 (9.25%) less to female applicants while the women offered approximately $4000 (14.6%) less. It’s uncomfortable to admit that women may be just as much or even more at fault as men where gender bias is concerned. However, it is necessary if the situation is ever going to change.

The Sept. 24, 2012 news release from Yale University features a quote from the lead author (Note: I have removed a link),

Yale University researchers asked 127 scientists to review a job application of identically qualified male and female students and found that the faculty members – both men and women – consistently scored a male candidate higher on a number of criteria such as competency and were more likely to hire the male. The result came as no surprise to Jo Handelsman, professor of molecular, cellular, and developmental biology (MCDB), a leading microbiologist, and national expert on science education. She is the lead author of the study scheduled to be published the week of Sept. 24 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Whenever I give a talk that mentions past findings of implicit gender bias in hiring, inevitably a scientist will say that can’t happen in our labs because we are trained to be objective. I had hoped that they were right,” said Handelsman, who is also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor.

So Handelsman and Corinne A. Moss-Racusin, a postdoctoral associate in MCDB and psychology, as well as colleagues in social psychology decided to test whether this bias among researchers might help explain why fewer women than men have careers in science. They provided about 200 academic researchers with an application from a senior undergraduate student ostensibly applying for a job as lab manager. The faculty participants all received the same application, which was randomly assigned a male or female name. The faculty were asked to judge the applicants’ competency, how much they should be paid, and whether or not they would be willing to mentor the student.

In the end, scientists responded no differently than other groups tested for bias. Both men and women science faculty were more likely to hire the male, ranked him higher in competency, and were willing to pay him $4000 more than the woman. [emphasis mine] They were also more willing to provide mentoring to the male than to the female candidate.

I highlighted the sentence in the excerpt since the portion about the salary difference somewhat contradicts my own reading of the information in the study. If you are female, you will still be offered less money by male faculty but the percentage (9% less) is an improvement over the 14% differential offered by female faculty.  I do appreciate that these numbers have been crunched together and there will be individual differences, as well as, outliers but this finding certainly confirms ‘folk wisdom’ and points to the difficulty of facing uncomfortable truths for even the researchers and their sponsoring institutions.

ETA Sept. 25, 2012: There have been some comments about the research and the methodology on Uta Frith’s Science&shopping website:

Research on gender bias

Comments by David Attwell on Moss-Racusin et al. ‘Science faculty’s subtle gender biases’

Comments on comments by Virginia Valian

Comments on comments by Dorothy Bishop

H/T to Jenny Rohn for the information about Uta Frith’s coverage of the issue which I found in Rohn’s Sept. 25, 2012 posting about women, science, and bias (she mentions this recent research from Yale but in the context of other research and broader issues of gender bias in the sciences) for the Guardian science blogs.

ETA Sept. 26, 2012: The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s As It Happens radio show features an interview with Corinne A. Moss-Racusin about the paper in their Sept. 25, 2012 broadcast. Click here and scroll down to the Sept. 25, 2012 entry and keep scrolling until you see the speaker icon and Listen, click on Listen and the popup menu will appear. Scroll down to part 3 and click again (it’s the second interview). There’s also a Sept. 25, 2012 podcast in the left column of today’s front page screen of As It Happens, which I did not test.