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Brief note about changes

June 19,2019: Hello! I apologize for this site’s unavailability over the last 10 days or so (June 7 – 18, 2019). Moving to a new web hosting service meant that the ‘law of unintended consequences’ came into play. Fingers crossed that all the problems have been resolved.

On another matter, I’ve accumulated quite a backlog of postings, which I will be resizing (publishing) over the next few months. I’ve been trying to bring that backlog down to a reasonable size for quite some time now but I see more drastic, focused action is required. I will continue posting some more recent news items along with my older pieces.

Canadian researchers develop bone implant material from cellulose nanocrystals (CNC) while Russian scientists restore internal structure of bone with polycaprolactone nanofibers

Two research groups are working to the same end where bone marrow is concerned, encourage bone cell growth, but they are using different strategies.

University of British Columbia and McMaster University (Canada)

Caption: Researchers treated nanocrystals derived from plant cellulose so that they can link up and form a strong but lightweight sponge (an aerogel) that can compress or expand as needed to completely fill out a bone cavity. Credit: Clare Kiernan, UBC

The samples look a little like teeth, don’t they?

Before diving into the research news, there’s a terminology issue that should be noted as you’ll see when you read the news/press releases. Nanocrystal cellulose/nanocrystalline cellulose (NCC) is a term coined by Canadian researchers. Since those early day, most researchers, internationally, have adopted the term cellulose nanocrystals (CNC) as the standard term. It fits better with the naming conventions for other nnanocellulose materials such as cellulose nanofibrils, etc. By the way, a Canadian company (CelluForce) that produces CNC retained the term nanocrystalline cellulose (NCC) as a trademark for the product, CelluForce NCC®.

For anyone not familiar with aerogels, what the University of British Columbia (UBC) and McMaster University researchers are developing, are also popularly known known as ‘frozen smoke’ (see the Aerogel Wikipedia entry for more).

A March 19, 2019 news item on ScienceDaily announces the research,

Researchers from the University of British Columbia and McMaster University have developed what could be the bone implant material of the future: an airy, foamlike substance that can be injected into the body and provide scaffolding for the growth of new bone.

It’s made by treating nanocrystals derived from plant cellulose so that they link up and form a strong but lightweight sponge — technically speaking, an aerogel — that can compress or expand as needed to completely fill out a bone cavity.

A March 19, 2019 UBC news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the research in more detail,

“Most bone graft or implants are made of hard, brittle ceramic that doesn’t always conform to the shape of the hole, and those gaps can lead to poor growth of the bone and implant failure,” said study author Daniel Osorio, a PhD student in chemical engineering at McMaster. “We created this cellulose nanocrystal aerogel as a more effective alternative to these synthetic materials.”

For their research, the team worked with two groups of rats, with the first group receiving the aerogel implants and the second group receiving none. Results showed that the group with implants saw 33 per cent more bone growth at the three-week mark and 50 per cent more bone growth at the 12-week mark, compared to the controls.

“These findings show, for the first time in a lab setting, that a cellulose nanocrystal aerogel can support new bone growth,” said study co-author Emily Cranston, a professor of wood science and chemical and biological engineering who holds the President’s Excellence Chair in Forest Bio-products at UBC. She added that the implant should break down into non-toxic components in the body as the bone starts to heal.

The innovation can potentially fill a niche in the $2-billion bone graft market in North America, said study co-author Kathryn Grandfield, a professor of materials science and engineering, and biomedical engineering at McMaster who supervised the work.

“We can see this aerogel being used for a number of applications including dental implants and spinal and joint replacement surgeries,” said Grandfield. “And it will be economical because the raw material, the nanocellulose, is already being produced in commercial quantities.”

The researchers say it will be some time before the aerogel makes it out of the lab and into the operating room.

“This summer, we will study the mechanisms between the bone and implant that lead to bone growth,” said Grandfield. “We’ll also look at how the implant degrades using advanced microscopes. After that, more biological testing will be required before it is ready for clinical trials.”

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

Cross-linked cellulose nanocrystal aerogels as viable bone tissue scaffolds by Daniel A. Osorio, Bryan E. J. Lee, Jacek M. Kwiecien, Xiaoyue Wang, Iflah Shahid, Ariana L. Hurley, Emily D. Cranston and Kathryn Grandfield. Acta Biomaterialia Volume 87, 15 March 2019, Pages 152-165 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.actbio.2019.01.049

This paper is behind a paywall

Now for the Russian team.

National University of Science and Technology “MISIS” (formerly part of the Moscow Mining Academy)

These scientists have adopted a different strategy as you’ll see in the March 19, 2019 news item on Nanwerk, which, coincidentally, was published on the same day as the Canadian research,

Scientists from the National University of Science and Technology “MISIS” developed a nanomaterial, which will be able to rstore the internal structure of bones damaged due to osteoporosis and osteomyelitis. A special bioactive coating of the material helped to increase the rate of division of bone cells by 3 times. In the future, it can allow to abandon bone marrow transplantation and patients will no longer need to wait for suitable donor material.

A March 19, 2019 National University of Science and Technology (MISIS) press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides detail about the impetus for the research and the technique being developed,

Such diseases as osteoporosis and osteomyelitis cause irreversible degenerative changes in the bone structure. Such diseases require serious complex treatment and surgery and transplantation of the destroyed bone marrow in severe stages. Donor material should have a number of compatibility indicators and even close relationship with the donor cannot guarantee full compatibility.

Research group from the National University of Science and Technology “MISIS” (NUST MISIS), led by Anton Manakhov (Laboratory for Inorganic Nanomaterials) developed material that will allow to restore damaged internal bone structure without bone marrow transplantation.
It is based on nanofibers of polycaprolactone, which is biocompatible self-dissolvable material. Earlier, the same research group has already worked with this material: by adding antibiotics to the nanofibers, scientists have managed to create non-changeable healing bandages.

“If we want the implant to take, not only biocompatibility is needed, but also activation of the natural cell growth on the surface of the material. Polycaprolactone as such is a hydrophobic material, meaning, and cells feel uncomfortable on its surface. They gather on the smooth surface and divide extremely slow”, Elizaveta Permyakova, one of the co-authors and researcher at NUST MISIS Laboratory for Inorganic Nanomaterials, explains.

To increase the hydrophilicity of the material, a thin layer of bioactive film consisting of titanium, calcium, phosphorus, carbon, oxygen and nitrogen (TiCaPCON) was deposited on it. The structure of nanofibers identical to the cell surface was preserved. These films, when immersed in a special salt medium, which chemical composition is identical to human blood plasma, are able to form on its surface a special layer of calcium and phosphorus, which in natural conditions forms the main part of the bone. Due to the chemical similarity and the structure of nanofibers, new bone tissue begins to grow rapidly on this layer. Most importantly, polycaprolactone nanofibers dissolve, having fulfilled their functions. Only new “native” tissue remains in the bone.

In the experimental part of the study, the researchers compared the rate of division of osteoblastic bone cells on the surface of the modified and unmodified material. It was found that the modified material TiCaPCON has a high hydrophilicity. In contrast to the unmodified material, the cells on its surface felt clearly more comfortable, and divided three times faster.

According to scientists, such results open up great prospects for further work with modified polycaprolactone nanofibers as an alternative to bone marrow transplantation.

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

Bioactive TiCaPCON-coated PCL nanofibers as a promising material for bone tissue engineering by Anton Manakhov, Elizaveta S. Permyakova, Sergey Ershov, Alexander Sheveyko, Andrey Kovalskii, Josef Polčák, Irina Y. Zhitnyak, Natalia A. Gloushankova, Lenka Zajíčková, Dmitry V. Shtansky. Applied Surface Science Volume 479, 15 June 2019, Pages 796-802 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.apsusc.2019.02.163

This paper is behind a paywall.

A nanocomposite biomaterial heart valve from the University of British Columbia (Canada)

I wish the folks at the University of British Columbia (UBC) would include more technical/scientific information in their news releases about research. For those who do like a little more technical information, I included the paper’s abstract at the end of this post.

A March 25, 2019 news item on ScienceDaily trumpets the UBC (Okanagan campus) research,

Researchers at UBC have created the first-ever nanocomposite biomaterial heart-valve developed to reduce or eliminate complications related to heart transplants.

By using a newly developed technique, the researchers were able to build a more durable valve that enables the heart to adapt faster and more seamlessly.

A March 25, 2019 UBC news release (also on EurekAlert) by Patty Wellborn, which originated the news item, gives an accessible description of the ‘new’ valve,

Assistant Professor Hadi Mohammadi runs the Heart Valve Performance Laboratory (HVPL) through UBC Okanagan’s School of Engineering. Lead author on the study, he says the newly developed valve is an example of a transcatheter heart valve, a promising new branch of cardiology. These valves are unique because they can be inserted into a patient through small incisions rather than opening a patient’s chest–a procedure that is generally safer and much less invasive.

“Existing transcatheter heart valves are made of animal tissues, most often the pericardium membrane from a cow’s heart, and have had only moderate success to date,” explains Mohammadi. “The problem is that they face significant implantation risks and can lead to coronary obstruction and acute kidney injury.”

The new valve solves that problem by using naturally derived nanocomposites–a material assembled with a variety of very small components–including gels, vinyl and cellulose. The combination of their new material with the non-invasive nature of transcatheter heart valves makes this new design very promising for use with high-risk patients, according to Mohammadi.

“Not only is the material important but the design and construction of our valve means that it lowers stress on the valve by as much as 40 per cent compared to valves currently available,” says Dylan Goode, a graduate researcher at the HVPL. “It is uniquely manufactured in one continuous form, so it gains strength and flexibility to withstand the circulatory complications that can arise following transplantation.”

Working with researchers from Kelowna General Hospital and Western University, the valve will now undergo vigorous testing to perfect its material composition and design. The testing will include human heart simulators and large animal in-vivo studies. If successful, the valve will then proceed to clinical patient testing.

“This has the potential to become the new standard in heart valve replacement and to provide a safer, longer-term solution for many patients.”

The new design was highlighted in a paper published this month in the Journal of Engineering in Medicine with financial support from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada [NSERC] .

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

Proposed percutaneous aortic valve prosthesis made of cryogel by Hadi Mohammadi, Dylan Goode, Guy Fradet, Kibret Mequanint. Proceedings of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, Part H: Journal of Engineering in Medicine, 2019; 095441191983730 DOI: 10.1177/0954411919837302 First Published March 20, 2019

This paper is behind a paywall.

As promised, here’s the abstract,

Transcatheter heart valves are promising for high-risk patients. Generally, their leaflets are made of pericardium stented in a Nitinol basket. Despite their relative success, they are associated with significant complications such as valve migration, implantation risks, stroke, coronary obstruction, myocardial infraction, acute kidney injury (which all are due to the release of detached solid calcific pieces in to the blood stream) and expected issues existing with tissue valves such as leaflet calcification. This study is an attempt to fabricate the first ever polymeric percutaneous valves made of cryogel following the geometry and mechanical properties of porcine aortic valve to address some of the above-mentioned shortcomings. A novel, one-piece, tricuspid percutaneous valve, consisting of leaflets made entirely from the hydrogel, polyvinyl alcohol cryogel reinforced by bacterial cellulose natural nanocomposite, attached to a Nitinol basket was developed and demonstrated. Following the natural geometry of the valve, a novel approach was applied based on the revolution about an axis of a hyperboloid shape. The geometry was modified based on avoiding sharp warpage of leaflets and removal of the central opening orifice area of the valve when valve is fully closed using the finite element analysis. The modified geometry was replaced by a cloud of (control) points and was essentially converted to Bezier surfaces for further adjustment. A cavity mold was then designed and fabricated to form the valve. The fabricated valve was sewn into the Nitinol basket which is covered by Dacron cloth. The models presented in this study merit further development and revisions for both aortic and mitral positions.

So, this new valve partially consists of bacterial cellulose and the design is based on porcine (pig) valves. Cellulose is the most abundant organic material on earth and if it forms part of the nanocomposite, I’d expect to see the word ‘nanocellulose’ mentioned somewhere. What puzzles me is the ‘bacterial cellulose’, a term that is unfamiliar to me. Anyone who cares to clarify the matter for me, please feel free to leave a comment.

Regarding the pig valve, I understand that heart patients who require valves have a choice of a pig valve or a mechanical valve. Apparently, people with porcine valves don’t need to take drugs to counteract rejection amongst other advantages but the valves do have a shorter life span (10 to 15 years) in addition to the other shortcomings mentioned in the abstract.

Assuming I properly understand the abstract, this ‘nanocomposite’ valve could combine the advantages of the mechanical and porcine valves while offering more durability than either one.

Again, should anyone care to increase my understanding of the valves and the advantages of this new one, please do leave a comment.

Ankle exoskeletons good for people who need to do a lot of walking or running on the job

For people who need a little extra ankle support, this might be useful in the, hopefully, not too distant future.

The new ankle exoskeleton design integrates into the shoe and under clothing. Submitted photo. Courtesy of Vanderbilt University Credit: Matthew Yandell

A March 22, 2019 news item on ScienceDaily announces this latest research,

A new lightweight, low-profile and inexpensive ankle exoskeleton could be widely used among elderly people, those with impaired lower-leg muscle strength and workers whose jobs require substantial walking or running.

Developed by Vanderbilt mechanical engineers, the device is believed to be the first ankle exoskeleton that could be worn under clothes without restricting motion. It does not require additional components such as batteries or actuators carried on the back or waist.

A March 21, 2019 Venderbilt University news release (also on EurekAlert but published March 22, 2019), offers more detail,

The study, published online by IEEE Transactions on Neural Systems & Rehabilitation Engineering, builds on a successful and widely cited ankle exoskeleton concept from other researchers in 2015.

“We’ve shown how an unpowered ankle exoskeleton could be redesigned to fit under clothing and inside/under shoes so it more seamlessly integrates into daily life,” said Matt Yandell, a mechanical engineering Ph.D. student and lead author of the study.

In a significant design advancement, the team invented an unpowered friction clutch mechanism that fits under the foot or shoe and is no thicker than a typical shoe insole. The complete device, which includes a soft shank sleeve and assistive spring, weighs just over one pound.

The unpowered ankle exoskeleton costs less than $100 to fabricate, without factoring in optimized design for manufacturing and economies of scale.

“Our design is lightweight, low profile, quiet, uses no motor or batteries, it is low cost to manufacture, and naturally adapts to different walking speeds to assist the ankle muscles,” said Karl Zelik, assistant professor of mechanical engineering and senior author on the study.

Zelik will be presenting this work next week at the Wearable Robotics Association Conference in Phoenix, Arizona [March 26-28, 2019].

The potential applications are broad, from helping aging people stay active to assisting recreational walkers, hikers or runners, he said.

“It could also help reduce fatigue in occupations that involve lots of walking, such as postal and warehouse workers, and soldiers in the field,” Zelik said.

Joshua Tacca, BE’18, also is a co-author. He is now a graduate student in the Integrative Physiology Department at the University of Colorado-Boulder. Several other Vanderbilt undergraduate engineering students also contributed to the device design and pilot testing.

I wonder if this device requires a particular kind of shoe. In any event, here’s a link to and a citation for the study,

Design of a Low Profile, Unpowered Ankle Exoskeleton That Fits Under Clothes: Overcoming Practical Barriers to Widespread Societal Adoption by Matthew B. Yandell, Joshua R. Tacca, and Karl E. Zelik. IEEE Transactions on Neural Systems & Rehabilitation Engineering 2019; 1 DOI: 10.1109/TNSRE.2019.2904924 Date of Publication: 14 March 2019 (early access)

This study appears to be behind a paywall

An art/science and a science event in Vancouver (Canada)

We’re closing off August 2019 with a couple of talks, Curiosity Collider features an art/science event and Café Scientifique features a discussion about protease research.

Collider Café: Art. Science. Hybrids. on August 21, 2019

From an August 14, 2019 Curiosity Collider announcement (received via email),

How can the hybrids of scientific studies and artistic practices – embroidery, botanical art, projection sculpture, and video storytelling – spark creativity and discoveries?

Our #ColliderCafe is a space for artists, scientists, makers, and anyone interested in art+science to meet, discover, and connect.

Are you curious? Join us at “Collider Cafe: Art. Science. Hybrids.” to explore how art and science intersect in the exploration of curiosity.

When: 8:00pm on Wednesday, August 21, 2019. Doors open at 7:30pm.
Where: Pizzeria Barbarella. 654 E Broadway, Vancouver, BC (Google Map).
Cost: $5-10 (sliding scale) cover at the door. Proceeds will be used to cover the cost of running this event, and to fund future Curiosity Collider events.

//Special thanks to Pizzeria Barbarella for hosting the upcoming Collider Cafe!//

With speakers: Heather Talbot (ecosystem, embroidery and felt art): Studying complex systems with thread
Katrina Vera Wong (botanical and climate research informed art): Flower Power
Kat Wadel (projection sculpture & plastic waste): Polymer Legacy
Lucas Kavanagh & Jesse Lupini; Avocado Video (science communication & video storytelling): Experiments in Digital Scientific Storytelling
Head to the Facebook event page – let us know you are coming and share this event with others! Follow updates on Instagram via @curiositycollider or #ColliderCafe. 
Looking for more Art+Science in Vancouver?

September 13, 14 We are excited to announce events for Her Story: Canadian Women Scientists, a film series dedicated to sharing the stories of Canadian women scientists. We will be hosting two screening events in September at the Annex. Get your tickets now!
August 15 Explore our relationships with waterways across Metro Vancouver at Living Legends of Vancouver: a premiere screening of short videos by students from the Emily Carr. This screening will be hosted by the Beaty Biodiversity Museum (admission by donation), and intermixed with interactive presentations and dialogue led by the artists. 
August 28 Our friends at Nerd Nite Vancouver is hosting Nerd Nite Goes to the Movies at the VIFF. The next event will focus on evolution. The event will be followed by a screening of Andrew Niccol’s Gattaca. Get tickets now!
Until September 29  New Media Gallery presents Winds, where artists explore how our perception and understanding of landscape can be interpreted through technology.  
Until November 10 CC friend Katrina Vera Wong (also speaker for Collider Cafe!), and Julya Hajnoczky will present their exhibition Closer at the Beaty Biodiversity Museum. Using different approaches – Hajnoczky with high-resolution still life photographs and Wong with sections of pressed or dried plants – both artists explore the enchanting world of the often overlooked in this unique joint exhibition

For more Vancouver art+science events, visit the Curiosity Collider events calendar.

Café Scientifique: From tadpole tails to diagnosing disease – the evolution of protease research, August 27, 2019

From an August 14, 2019 Café Scientifique announcement (received via email),

Our next café will happen on Tuesday, August 27th at 7:30pm in the back room at Yagger’s Downtown (433 W Pender). Our speaker for the evening will be  Dr. Georgina Butler from the Centre for Blood Research at UBC [University of British Columbia].


From tadpole tails to diagnosing disease – the evolution of protease research  
 
Proteases are enzymes that cut other proteins. Humans have 560 different proteases – why so many? what are they doing? We know that too much protease activity can be detrimental in diseases such as cancer and arthritis, but failed efforts to stop cancer spread by blocking proteases has contributed to the realization that some cuts are essential. In the era of “big data”, at UBC we have developed new techniques (degradomics) to study proteases on a global scale to determine what they really do in health and disease. Hopefully this information will enable us to identify new drug targets as well as novel biomarkers to diagnose or monitor disease.

Dr. Butler completed her undergraduate degree in Biochemistry (with Studies in Italy) at the University of Kent at Canterbury, and her PhD in Biochemistry at the University of Leicester in the UK. She came to UBC as a Wellcome Trust Travelling Fellow in 1999 for 2 years. Still here, she is a Research Associate at the Centre for Blood Research and in Oral, Biological and Medical Sciences at UBC, where she studies novel roles of proteases in health and disease. 

We hope to see you there!

Your Café Sci Vancouver Organizers

You can find Dr. Butler’s UBC profile page here.

A solution to the problem of measuring nanoparticles

As you might expect from the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) this research concerns techniques for measurements. From an August 15, 2019 news item on Nanowerk (Note: Links have been removed),

Tiny nanoparticles play a gargantuan role in modern life, even if most consumers are unaware of their presence. They provide essential ingredients in sunscreen lotions, prevent athlete’s foot fungus in socks, and fight microbes on bandages. They enhance the colors of popular candies and keep the powdered sugar on doughnuts powdery. They are even used in advanced drugs that target specific types of cells in cancer treatments.

When chemists analyze a sample, however, it is challenging to measure the sizes and quantities of these particles — which are often 100,000 times smaller than the thickness of a piece of paper. Technology offers many options for assessing nanoparticles, but experts have not reached a consensus on which technique is best.

In a new paper from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and collaborating institutions, researchers have concluded that measuring the range of sizes in nanoparticles — instead of just the average particle size — is optimal for most applications.

An August 14, 2019 NIST news release (also received via email and on EurkAlert), which originated the news item, delves further into the research,

“It seems like a simple choice,” said NIST’s Elijah Petersen, the lead author of the paper, which was published today in Environmental Science: Nano. “But it can have a big impact on the outcome of your assessment.”

As with many measurement questions, precision is key. Exposure to a certain amount of some nanoparticles could have adverse effects. Pharmaceutical researchers often need exactitude to maximize a drug’s efficacy. And environmental scientists need to know, for example, how many nanoparticles of gold, silver or titanium could potentially cause a risk to organisms in soil or water.

Using more nanoparticles than needed in a product because of inconsistent measurements could also waste money for manufacturers.

Although they might sound ultramodern, nanoparticles are neither new nor based solely on high-tech manufacturing processes. A nanoparticle is really just a submicroscopic particle that measures less than 100 nanometers on at least one of its dimensions. It would be possible to place hundreds of thousands of them onto the head of a pin. They are exciting to researchers because many materials act differently at the nanometer scale than they do at larger scales, and nanoparticles can be made to do lots of useful things.

Nanoparticles have been in use since the days of ancient Mesopotamia [emphasis mine], when ceramic artists used extremely small bits of metal to decorate vases and other vessels. In fourth-century Rome, glass artisans ground metal into tiny particles to change the color of their wares under different lighting. These techniques were forgotten for a while but rediscovered in the 1600s by resourceful manufacturers for glassmaking [emphasis mine] again. Then, in the 1850s, scientist Michael Faraday extensively researched ways to use various kinds of wash mixes to change the performance of gold particles.

Modern nanoparticle research advanced quickly in the mid-20th century due to technological innovations in optics. Being able to see the individual particles and study their behavior expanded the possibilities for experimentation. The largest advances came, however, after experimental nanotechnology took off in the 1990s. Suddenly, the behavior of single particles of gold and many other substances could be closely examined and manipulated. Discoveries about the ways that small amounts of a substance would reflect light, absorb light, or change in behavior were numerous, leading to the incorporation of nanoparticles into many more products

Debates have since followed about their measurement. When assessing the response of cells or organisms to nanoparticles, some researchers prefer measuring particle number concentrations (sometimes called PNCs by scientists). Many find PNCs challenging since extra formulas must be employed when determining the final measurement. Others prefer measuring mass or surface area concentrations.

PNCs are often used for characterizing metals in chemistry. The situation for nanoparticles is inherently more complex, however, than it is for dissolved organic or inorganic substances because unlike dissolved chemicals, nanoparticles can come in a wide variety of sizes and sometimes stick together when added to testing materials.

“If you have a dissolved chemical, it’s always going to have the same molecular formula, by definition,” Petersen says. “Nanoparticles don’t just have a certain number of atoms, however. Some will be 9 nanometers, some will be 11, some might be 18, and some might be 3.”

The problem is that each of those particles may be fulfilling an important role. While a simple estimate of particle number is perfectly fine for some industrial applications, therapeutic applications require much more robust measurement. In the case of cancer therapies, for example, each particle, no matter how big or small, may be delivering a needed antidote. And just as with any other kind of dosage, nanoparticle dosage must be exact in order to be safe and effective.

Using the range of particle sizes to calculate the PNC will often be the most helpful in most cases, said Petersen. The size distribution doesn’t use a mean or an average but notes the complete distribution of sizes of particles so that formulas can be used to effectively discover how many particles are in a sample.

But no matter which approach is used, researchers need to make note of it in their papers, for the sake of comparability with other studies. “Don’t assume that different approaches will give you the same result,” he said.

Petersen adds that he and his colleagues were surprised by how much the coatings on nanoparticles could impact measurement. Some coatings, he noted, can have a positive electrical charge, causing clumping.

Petersen worked in collaboration with researchers from federal laboratories in Switzerland, and with scientists from 3M who have previously made many nanoparticle measurements for use in industrial settings. Researchers from Switzerland, like those in much of the rest of Europe, are keen to learn more about measuring nanoparticles because PNCs are required in many regulatory situations. There hasn’t been much information on which techniques are best or more likely to yield the most precise results across many applications.

“Until now we didn’t even know if we could find agreement among labs about particle number concentrations,” Petersen says. “They are complex. But now we are beginning to see it can be done.”

I love the reference to glassmaking and ancient Mesopotamia. Getting back to current times, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Determining what really counts: modeling and measuring nanoparticle number concentrations by Elijah J. Petersen, Antonio R. Montoro Bustos, Blaza Toman, Monique E. Johnson, Mark Ellefson, George C. Caceres, Anna Lena Neuer, Qilin Chan, Jonathan W. Kemling, Brian Mader, Karen Murphy and Matthias Roesslein. Environmental Science: Nano. Published August 14, 2019. DOI: 10.1039/c9en00462a

This paper is behind a paywall.

AI (artificial intelligence) artist got a show at a New York City art gallery

AI artists first hit my radar in August 2018 when Christie’s Auction House advertised an art auction of a ‘painting’ by an algorithm (artificial intelligence). There’s more in my August 31, 2018 posting but, briefly, a French art collective, Obvious, submitted a painting, “Portrait of Edmond de Belamy,” that was created by an artificial intelligence agent to be sold for an estimated to $7000 – $10,000. They weren’t even close. According to Ian Bogost’s March 6, 2019 article for The Atlantic, the painting sold for $432,500 In October 2018.

It has also, Bogost notes in his article, occasioned an art show (Note: Links have been removed),

… part of “Faceless Portraits Transcending Time,” an exhibition of prints recently shown [Februay 13 – March 5, 2019] at the HG Contemporary gallery in Chelsea, the epicenter of New York’s contemporary-art world. All of them were created by a computer.

The catalog calls the show a “collaboration between an artificial intelligence named AICAN and its creator, Dr. Ahmed Elgammal,” a move meant to spotlight, and anthropomorphize, the machine-learning algorithm that did most of the work. According to HG Contemporary, it’s the first solo gallery exhibit devoted to an AI artist.

If they hadn’t found each other in the New York art scene, the players involved could have met on a Spike Jonze film set: a computer scientist commanding five-figure print sales from software that generates inkjet-printed images; a former hotel-chain financial analyst turned Chelsea techno-gallerist with apparent ties to fine-arts nobility; a venture capitalist with two doctoral degrees in biomedical informatics; and an art consultant who put the whole thing together, A-Team–style, after a chance encounter at a blockchain conference. Together, they hope to reinvent visual art, or at least to cash in on machine-learning hype along the way.

The show in New York City, “Faceless Portraits …,” exhibited work by an artificially intelligent artist-agent (I’m creating a new term to suit my purposes) that’s different than the one used by Obvious to create “Portrait of Edmond de Belamy,” As noted earlier, it sold for a lot of money (Note: Links have been removed),

Bystanders in and out of the art world were shocked. The print had never been shown in galleries or exhibitions before coming to market at auction, a channel usually reserved for established work. The winning bid was made anonymously by telephone, raising some eyebrows; art auctions can invite price manipulation. It was created by a computer program that generates new images based on patterns in a body of existing work, whose features the AI “learns.” What’s more, the artists who trained and generated the work, the French collective Obvious, hadn’t even written the algorithm or the training set. They just downloaded them, made some tweaks, and sent the results to market.

“We are the people who decided to do this,” the Obvious member Pierre Fautrel said in response to the criticism, “who decided to print it on canvas, sign it as a mathematical formula, put it in a gold frame.” A century after Marcel Duchamp made a urinal into art [emphasis mine] by putting it in a gallery, not much has changed, with or without computers. As Andy Warhol famously said, “Art is what you can get away with.”

A bit of a segue here, there is a controversy as to whether or not that ‘urinal art’, also known as, The Fountain, should be attributed to Duchamp as noted in my January 23, 2019 posting titled ‘Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, Marcel Duchamp, and the Fountain’.

Getting back to the main action, Bogost goes on to describe the technologies underlying the two different AI artist-agents (Note: Links have been removed),

… Using a computer is hardly enough anymore; today’s machines offer all kinds of ways to generate images that can be output, framed, displayed, and sold—from digital photography to artificial intelligence. Recently, the fashionable choice has become generative adversarial networks, or GANs, the technology that created Portrait of Edmond de Belamy. Like other machine-learning methods, GANs use a sample set—in this case, art, or at least images of it—to deduce patterns, and then they use that knowledge to create new pieces. A typical Renaissance portrait, for example, might be composed as a bust or three-quarter view of a subject. The computer may have no idea what a bust is, but if it sees enough of them, it might learn the pattern and try to replicate it in an image.

GANs use two neural nets (a way of processing information modeled after the human brain) to produce images: a “generator” and a “discerner.” The generator produces new outputs—images, in the case of visual art—and the discerner tests them against the training set to make sure they comply with whatever patterns the computer has gleaned from that data. The quality or usefulness of the results depends largely on having a well-trained system, which is difficult.

That’s why folks in the know were upset by the Edmond de Belamy auction. The image was created by an algorithm the artists didn’t write, trained on an “Old Masters” image set they also didn’t create. The art world is no stranger to trend and bluster driving attention, but the brave new world of AI painting appeared to be just more found art, the machine-learning equivalent of a urinal on a plinth.

Ahmed Elgammal thinks AI art can be much more than that. A Rutgers University professor of computer science, Elgammal runs an art-and-artificial-intelligence lab, where he and his colleagues develop technologies that try to understand and generate new “art” (the scare quotes are Elgammal’s) with AI—not just credible copies of existing work, like GANs do. “That’s not art, that’s just repainting,” Elgammal says of GAN-made images. “It’s what a bad artist would do.”

Elgammal calls his approach a “creative adversarial network,” or CAN. It swaps a GAN’s discerner—the part that ensures similarity—for one that introduces novelty instead. The system amounts to a theory of how art evolves: through small alterations to a known style that produce a new one. That’s a convenient take, given that any machine-learning technique has to base its work on a specific training set.

The results are striking and strange, although calling them a new artistic style might be a stretch. They’re more like credible takes on visual abstraction. The images in the show, which were produced based on training sets of Renaissance portraits and skulls, are more figurative, and fairly disturbing. Their gallery placards name them dukes, earls, queens, and the like, although they depict no actual people—instead, human-like figures, their features smeared and contorted yet still legible as portraiture. Faceless Portrait of a Merchant, for example, depicts a torso that might also read as the front legs and rear haunches of a hound. Atop it, a fleshy orb comes across as a head. The whole scene is rippled by the machine-learning algorithm, in the way of so many computer-generated artworks.

Faceless Portrait of a Merchant, one of the AI portraits produced by Ahmed Elgammal and AICAN. (Artrendex Inc.) [downloaded from https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2019/03/ai-created-art-invades-chelsea-gallery-scene/584134/]

Bogost consults an expert on portraiture for a discussion about the particularities of portraiture and the shortcomings one might expect of an AI artist-agent (Note: A link has been removed),

“You can’t really pick a form of painting that’s more charged with cultural meaning than portraiture,” John Sharp, an art historian trained in 15th-century Italian painting and the director of the M.F.A. program in design and technology at Parsons School of Design, told me. The portrait isn’t just a style, it’s also a host for symbolism. “For example, men might be shown with an open book to show how they are in dialogue with that material; or a writing implement, to suggest authority; or a weapon, to evince power.” Take Portrait of a Youth Holding an Arrow, an early-16th-century Boltraffio portrait that helped train the AICAN database for the show. The painting depicts a young man, believed to be the Bolognese poet Girolamo Casio, holding an arrow at an angle in his fingers and across his chest. It doubles as both weapon and quill, a potent symbol of poetry and aristocracy alike. Along with the arrow, the laurels in Casio’s hair are emblems of Apollo, the god of both poetry and archery.

A neural net couldn’t infer anything about the particular symbolic trappings of the Renaissance or antiquity—unless it was taught to, and that wouldn’t happen just by showing it lots of portraits. For Sharp and other critics of computer-generated art, the result betrays an unforgivable ignorance about the supposed influence of the source material.

But for the purposes of the show, the appeal to the Renaissance might be mostly a foil, a way to yoke a hip, new technology to traditional painting in order to imbue it with the gravity of history: not only a Chelsea gallery show, but also an homage to the portraiture found at the Met. To reinforce a connection to the cradle of European art, some of the images are presented in elaborate frames, a decision the gallerist, Philippe Hoerle-Guggenheim (yes, that Guggenheim; he says the relation is “distant”) [the Guggenheim is strongly associated with the visual arts by way the two Guggeheim museums, one in New York City and the other in Bilbao, Portugal], told me he insisted upon. Meanwhile, the technical method makes its way onto the gallery placards in an official-sounding way—“Creative Adversarial Network print.” But both sets of inspirations, machine-learning and Renaissance portraiture, get limited billing and zero explanation at the show. That was deliberate, Hoerle-Guggenheim said. He’s betting that the simple existence of a visually arresting AI painting will be enough to draw interest—and buyers. It would turn out to be a good bet.

The art market is just that: a market. Some of the most renowned names in art today, from Damien Hirst to Banksy, trade in the trade of art as much as—and perhaps even more than—in the production of images, objects, and aesthetics. No artist today can avoid entering that fray, Elgammal included. “Is he an artist?” Hoerle-Guggenheim asked himself of the computer scientist. “Now that he’s in this context, he must be.” But is that enough? In Sharp’s estimation, “Faceless Portraits Transcending Time” is a tech demo more than a deliberate oeuvre, even compared to the machine-learning-driven work of his design-and-technology M.F.A. students, who self-identify as artists first.

Judged as Banksy or Hirst might be, Elgammal’s most art-worthy work might be the Artrendex start-up itself, not the pigment-print portraits that its technology has output. Elgammal doesn’t treat his commercial venture like a secret, but he also doesn’t surface it as a beneficiary of his supposedly earnest solo gallery show. He’s argued that AI-made images constitute a kind of conceptual art, but conceptualists tend to privilege process over product or to make the process as visible as the product.

Hoerle-Guggenheim worked as a financial analyst for Hyatt before getting into the art business via some kind of consulting deal (he responded cryptically when I pressed him for details). …

This is a fascinating article and I have one last excerpt, which poses this question, is an AI artist-agent a collaborator or a medium? There ‘s also speculation about how AI artist-agents might impact the business of art (Note: Links have been removed),

… it’s odd to list AICAN as a collaborator—painters credit pigment as a medium, not as a partner. Even the most committed digital artists don’t present the tools of their own inventions that way; when they do, it’s only after years, or even decades, of ongoing use and refinement.

But Elgammal insists that the move is justified because the machine produces unexpected results. “A camera is a tool—a mechanical device—but it’s not creative,” he said. “Using a tool is an unfair term for AICAN. It’s the first time in history that a tool has had some kind of creativity, that it can surprise you.” Casey Reas, a digital artist who co-designed the popular visual-arts-oriented coding platform Processing, which he uses to create some of his fine art, isn’t convinced. “The artist should claim responsibility over the work rather than to cede that agency to the tool or the system they create,” he told me.

Elgammal’s financial interest in AICAN might explain his insistence on foregrounding its role. Unlike a specialized print-making technique or even the Processing coding environment, AICAN isn’t just a device that Elgammal created. It’s also a commercial enterprise.

Elgammal has already spun off a company, Artrendex, that provides “artificial-intelligence innovations for the art market.” One of them offers provenance authentication for artworks; another can suggest works a viewer or collector might appreciate based on an existing collection; another, a system for cataloging images by visual properties and not just by metadata, has been licensed by the Barnes Foundation to drive its collection-browsing website.

The company’s plans are more ambitious than recommendations and fancy online catalogs. When presenting on a panel about the uses of blockchain for managing art sales and provenance, Elgammal caught the attention of Jessica Davidson, an art consultant who advises artists and galleries in building collections and exhibits. Davidson had been looking for business-development partnerships, and she became intrigued by AICAN as a marketable product. “I was interested in how we can harness it in a compelling way,” she says.

The art market is just that: a market. Some of the most renowned names in art today, from Damien Hirst to Banksy, trade in the trade of art as much as—and perhaps even more than—in the production of images, objects, and aesthetics. No artist today can avoid entering that fray, Elgammal included. “Is he an artist?” Hoerle-Guggenheim asked himself of the computer scientist. “Now that he’s in this context, he must be.” But is that enough? In Sharp’s estimation, “Faceless Portraits Transcending Time” is a tech demo more than a deliberate oeuvre, even compared to the machine-learning-driven work of his design-and-technology M.F.A. students, who self-identify as artists first.

Judged as Banksy or Hirst might be, Elgammal’s most art-worthy work might be the Artrendex start-up itself, not the pigment-print portraits that its technology has output. Elgammal doesn’t treat his commercial venture like a secret, but he also doesn’t surface it as a beneficiary of his supposedly earnest solo gallery show. He’s argued that AI-made images constitute a kind of conceptual art, but conceptualists tend to privilege process over product or to make the process as visible as the product.

Hoerle-Guggenheim worked as a financial analyst[emphasis mine] for Hyatt before getting into the art business via some kind of consulting deal (he responded cryptically when I pressed him for details). …

If you have the time, I recommend reading Bogost’s March 6, 2019 article for The Atlantic in its entirety/ these excerpts don’t do it enough justice.

Portraiture: what does it mean these days?

After reading the article I have a few questions. What exactly do Bogost and the arty types in the article mean by the word ‘portrait’? “Portrait of Edmond de Belamy” is an image of someone who doesn’t and never has existed and the exhibit “Faceless Portraits Transcending Time,” features images that don’t bear much or, in some cases, any resemblance to human beings. Maybe this is considered a dull question by people in the know but I’m an outsider and I found the paradox: portraits of nonexistent people or nonpeople kind of interesting.

BTW, I double-checked my assumption about portraits and found this definition in the Portrait Wikipedia entry (Note: Links have been removed),

A portrait is a painting, photograph, sculpture, or other artistic representation of a person [emphasis mine], in which the face and its expression is predominant. The intent is to display the likeness, personality, and even the mood of the person. For this reason, in photography a portrait is generally not a snapshot, but a composed image of a person in a still position. A portrait often shows a person looking directly at the painter or photographer, in order to most successfully engage the subject with the viewer.

So, portraits that aren’t portraits give rise to some philosophical questions but Bogost either didn’t want to jump into that rabbit hole (segue into yet another topic) or, as I hinted earlier, may have assumed his audience had previous experience of those kinds of discussions.

Vancouver (Canada) and a ‘portraiture’ exhibit at the Rennie Museum

By one of life’s coincidences, Vancouver’s Rennie Museum had an exhibit (February 16 – June 15, 2019) that illuminates questions about art collecting and portraiture, From a February 7, 2019 Rennie Museum news release,

‘downloaded from https://renniemuseum.org/press-release-spring-2019-collected-works/] Courtesy: Rennie Museum

February 7, 2019

Press Release | Spring 2019: Collected Works
By rennie museum

rennie museum is pleased to present Spring 2019: Collected Works, a group exhibition encompassing the mediums of photography, painting and film. A portraiture of the collecting spirit [emphasis mine], the works exhibited invite exploration of what collected objects, and both the considered and unintentional ways they are displayed, inform us. Featuring the works of four artists—Andrew Grassie, William E. Jones, Louise Lawler and Catherine Opie—the exhibition runs from February 16 to June 15, 2019.

Four exquisite paintings by Scottish painter Andrew Grassie detailing the home and private storage space of a major art collector provide a peek at how the passionately devoted integrates and accommodates the physical embodiments of such commitment into daily life. Grassie’s carefully constructed, hyper-realistic images also pose the question, “What happens to art once it’s sold?” In the transition from pristine gallery setting to idiosyncratic private space, how does the new context infuse our reading of the art and how does the art shift our perception of the individual?

Furthering the inquiry into the symbiotic exchange between possessor and possession, a selection of images by American photographer Louise Lawler depicting art installed in various private and public settings question how the bilateral relationship permeates our interpretation when the collector and the collected are no longer immediately connected. What does de-acquisitioning an object inform us and how does provenance affect our consideration of the art?

The question of legacy became an unexpected facet of 700 Nimes Road (2010-2011), American photographer Catherine Opie’s portrait of legendary actress Elizabeth Taylor. Opie did not directly photograph Taylor for any of the fifty images in the expansive portfolio. Instead, she focused on Taylor’s home and the objects within, inviting viewers to see—then see beyond—the façade of fame and consider how both treasures and trinkets act as vignettes to the stories of a life. Glamorous images of jewels and trophies juxtapose with mundane shots of a printer and the remote-control user manual. Groupings of major artworks on the wall are as illuminating of the home’s mistress as clusters of personal photos. Taylor passed away part way through Opie’s project. The subsequent photos include Taylor’s mementos heading off to auction, raising the question, “Once the collections that help to define someone are disbursed, will our image of that person lose focus?”

In a similar fashion, the twenty-two photographs in Villa Iolas (1982/2017), by American artist and filmmaker William E. Jones, depict the Athens home of iconic art dealer and collector Alexander Iolas. Taken in 1982 by Jones during his first travels abroad, the photographs of art, furniture and antiquities tell a story of privilege that contrast sharply with the images Jones captures on a return visit in 2016. Nearly three decades after Iolas’s 1989 death, his home sits in dilapidation, looted and vandalized. Iolas played an extraordinary role in the evolution of modern art, building the careers of Max Ernst, Yves Klein and Giorgio de Chirico. He gave Andy Warhol his first solo exhibition and was a key advisor to famed collectors John and Dominique de Menil. Yet in the years since his death, his intention of turning his home into a modern art museum as a gift to Greece, along with his reputation, crumbled into ruins. The photographs taken by Jones during his visits in two different eras are incorporated into the film Fall into Ruin (2017), along with shots of contemporary Athens and antiquities on display at the National Archaeological Museum.

“I ask a lot of questions about how portraiture functionswhat is there to describe the person or time we live in or a certain set of politics…”
 – Catherine Opie, The Guardian, Feb 9, 2016

We tend to think of the act of collecting as a formal activity yet it can happen casually on a daily basis, often in trivial ways. While we readily acknowledge a collector consciously assembling with deliberate thought, we give lesser consideration to the arbitrary accumulations that each of us accrue. Be it master artworks, incidental baubles or random curios, the objects we acquire and surround ourselves with tell stories of who we are.

Andrew Grassie (Scotland, b. 1966) is a painter known for his small scale, hyper-realist works. He has been the subject of solo exhibitions at the Tate Britain; Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh; institut supérieur des arts de Toulouse; and rennie museum, Vancouver, Canada. He lives and works in London, England.

William E. Jones (USA, b. 1962) is an artist, experimental film-essayist and writer. Jones’s work has been the subject of retrospectives at Tate Modern, London; Anthology Film Archives, New York; Austrian Film Museum, Vienna; and, Oberhausen Short Film Festival. He is a recipient of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship and the Creative Capital/Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant. He lives and works in Los Angeles, USA.

Louise Lawler (USA, b. 1947) is a photographer and one of the foremost members of the Pictures Generation. Lawler was the subject of a major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 2017. She has held exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; National Museum of Art, Oslo; and Musée d’Art Moderne de La Ville de Paris. She lives and works in New York.

Catherine Opie (USA, b. 1961) is a photographer and educator. Her work has been exhibited at Wexner Center for the Arts, Ohio; Henie Onstad Art Center, Oslo; Los the Angeles County Museum of Art; Portland Art Museum; and the Guggenheim Museum, New York. She is the recipient of United States Artist Fellowship, Julius Shulman’s Excellence in Photography Award, and the Smithsonian’s Archive of American Art Medal.  She lives and works in Los Angeles.

rennie museum opened in October 2009 in historic Wing Sang, the oldest structure in Vancouver’s Chinatown, to feature dynamic exhibitions comprising only of art drawn from rennie collection. Showcasing works by emerging and established international artists, the exhibits, accompanied by supporting catalogues, are open free to the public through engaging guided tours. The museum’s commitment to providing access to arts and culture is also expressed through its education program, which offers free age-appropriate tours and customized workshops to children of all ages.

rennie collection is a globally recognized collection of contemporary art that focuses on works that tackle issues related to identity, social commentary and injustice, appropriation, and the nature of painting, photography, sculpture and film. Currently the collection includes works by over 370 emerging and established artists, with over fifty collected in depth. The Vancouver based collection engages actively with numerous museums globally through a robust, artist-centric, lending policy.

So despite the Wikipedia definition, it seems that portraits don’t always feature people. While Bogost didn’t jump into that particular rabbit hole, he did touch on the business side of art.

What about intellectual property?

Bogost doesn’t explicitly discuss this particular issue. It’s a big topic so I’m touching on it only lightly, if an artist worsk with an AI, the question as to ownership of the artwork could prove thorny. Is the copyright owner the computer scientist or the artist or both? Or does the AI artist-agent itself own the copyright? That last question may not be all that farfetched. Sophia, a social humanoid robot, has occasioned thought about ‘personhood.’ (Note: The robots mentioned in this posting have artificial intelligence.) From the Sophia (robot) Wikipedia entry (Note: Links have been removed),

Sophia has been interviewed in the same manner as a human, striking up conversations with hosts. Some replies have been nonsensical, while others have impressed interviewers such as 60 Minutes’ Charlie Rose.[12] In a piece for CNBC, when the interviewer expressed concerns about robot behavior, Sophia joked that he had “been reading too much Elon Musk. And watching too many Hollywood movies”.[27] Musk tweeted that Sophia should watch The Godfather and asked “what’s the worst that could happen?”[28][29] Business Insider’s chief UK editor Jim Edwards interviewed Sophia, and while the answers were “not altogether terrible”, he predicted it was a step towards “conversational artificial intelligence”.[30] At the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show, a BBC News reporter described talking with Sophia as “a slightly awkward experience”.[31]

On October 11, 2017, Sophia was introduced to the United Nations with a brief conversation with the United Nations Deputy Secretary-General, Amina J. Mohammed.[32] On October 25, at the Future Investment Summit in Riyadh, the robot was granted Saudi Arabian citizenship [emphasis mine], becoming the first robot ever to have a nationality.[29][33] This attracted controversy as some commentators wondered if this implied that Sophia could vote or marry, or whether a deliberate system shutdown could be considered murder. Social media users used Sophia’s citizenship to criticize Saudi Arabia’s human rights record. In December 2017, Sophia’s creator David Hanson said in an interview that Sophia would use her citizenship to advocate for women’s rights in her new country of citizenship; Newsweek criticized that “What [Hanson] means, exactly, is unclear”.[34] On November 27, 2018 Sophia was given a visa by Azerbaijan while attending Global Influencer Day Congress held in Baku. December 15, 2018 Sophia was appointed a Belt and Road Innovative Technology Ambassador by China'[35]

As for an AI artist-agent’s intellectual property rights , I have a July 10, 2017 posting featuring that question in more detail. Whether you read that piece or not, it seems obvious that artists might hesitate to call an AI agent, a partner rather than a medium of expression. After all, a partner (and/or the computer scientist who developed the programme) might expect to share in property rights and profits but paint, marble, plastic, and other media used by artists don’t have those expectations.

Moving slightly off topic , in my July 10, 2017 posting I mentioned a competition (literary and performing arts rather than visual arts) called, ‘Dartmouth College and its Neukom Institute Prizes in Computational Arts’. It was started in 2016 and, as of 2018, was still operational under this name: Creative Turing Tests. Assuming there’ll be contests for prizes in 2019, there’s (from the contest site) [1] PoetiX, competition in computer-generated sonnet writing; [2] Musical Style, composition algorithms in various styles, and human-machine improvisation …; and [3] DigiLit, algorithms able to produce “human-level” short story writing that is indistinguishable from an “average” human effort. You can find the contest site here.

In depth report on European Commission’s nanotechnology definition

A February 13, 2019 news item on the (US) National Law Review blog announces a new report on nanomaterial definitions (Note: A link has been removed),

The European Commission’s (EC) Joint Research Center (JRC) published on February 13, 2019, a report entitled An overview of concepts and terms used in the European Commission’s definition of nanomaterial. … The report provides recommendations for a harmonized and coherent implementation of the nanomaterial definition in any specific regulatory context at the European Union (EU) and national level.

©2019 Bergeson & Campbell, P.C.

There’s a bit more detail about the report in a February 19, 2019 European Commission press release,

The JRC just released a report clarifying the key concepts and terms used in the European Commission’s nanomaterial definition.

This will support stakeholders for the correct implementation of legislation making reference to the definition.

Nanotechnology may well be one of the most fast-moving sectors of the last few years.
The number of products produced by nanotechnology or containing nanomaterials entering the market is increasing.

As the technology develops, nanomaterials are delivering benefits to many sectors, including: healthcare (in targeted drug delivery, regenerative medicine, and diagnostics), electronics, cosmetics, textiles, information technology and environmental protection.
As the name suggests, nanomaterials are very small – so small that they are invisible to the human eye.

In fact, nanomaterials contain particles smaller than 100 nanometres (100 millionths of a millimetre).

Nanomaterials have unique physical and chemical characteristics.
They can be used in consumer products to improve the products’ properties – for instance, to make something more resistant against breaking, stains or humidity.

Nanomaterials have undoubtedly enabled progress in many areas, but as with all innovation, we must ensure that the impact on human health and the environment are properly considered

The European Commission’s Recommendation on the definition of nanomaterials (2011/696/EU) provides a general basis for regulatory instruments in many areas.

This definition has been used in the EU regulations on biocidal products and medical devices, and the REACH regulation. It is also used in various national legislative texts.

However, in the context of a JRC survey, many respondents expressed difficulties with the implementation of the EC definition, in particular due to the fact that some of the key concepts and terms could be interpreted in different ways.

Therefore, the JRC just published the report “An overview of concepts and terms used in the European Commission’s definition of nanomaterial” which aims to provide a clarification of the key concepts and terms of the nanomaterial definition and discusses them in a regulatory context.

This will facilitate a common understanding and fosters a harmonised and coherent implementation of the nanomaterial definition in different regulatory context at EU and national level.

Not my favourite topic but definitions and their implementation are important whether I like it or not.

Mimicking the brain with an evolvable organic electrochemical transistor

Simone Fabiano and Jennifer Gerasimov have developed a learning transistor that mimics the way synapses function. Credit: Thor Balkhed

At a guess, this was originally a photograph which has been passed through some sort of programme to give it a paintinglike quality.

Moving onto the research, I don’t see any reference to memristors (another of the ‘devices’ that mimics the human brain) so perhaps this is an entirely different way to mimic human brains? A February 5, 2019 news item on ScienceDaily announces the work from Linkoping University (Sweden),

A new transistor based on organic materials has been developed by scientists at Linköping University. It has the ability to learn, and is equipped with both short-term and long-term memory. The work is a major step on the way to creating technology that mimics the human brain.

A February 5, 2019 Linkoping University press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes this ‘nonmemristor’ research into brainlike computing in more detail,

Until now, brains have been unique in being able to create connections where there were none before. In a scientific article in Advanced Science, researchers from Linköping University describe a transistor that can create a new connection between an input and an output. They have incorporated the transistor into an electronic circuit that learns how to link a certain stimulus with an output signal, in the same way that a dog learns that the sound of a food bowl being prepared means that dinner is on the way.

A normal transistor acts as a valve that amplifies or dampens the output signal, depending on the characteristics of the input signal. In the organic electrochemical transistor that the researchers have developed, the channel in the transistor consists of an electropolymerised conducting polymer. The channel can be formed, grown or shrunk, or completely eliminated during operation. It can also be trained to react to a certain stimulus, a certain input signal, such that the transistor channel becomes more conductive and the output signal larger.

“It is the first time that real time formation of new electronic components is shown in neuromorphic devices”, says Simone Fabiano, principal investigator in organic nanoelectronics at the Laboratory of Organic Electronics, Campus Norrköping.

The channel is grown by increasing the degree of polymerisation of the material in the transistor channel, thereby increasing the number of polymer chains that conduct the signal. Alternatively, the material may be overoxidised (by applying a high voltage) and the channel becomes inactive. Temporary changes of the conductivity can also be achieved by doping or dedoping the material.

“We have shown that we can induce both short-term and permanent changes to how the transistor processes information, which is vital if one wants to mimic the ways that brain cells communicate with each other”, says Jennifer Gerasimov, postdoc in organic nanoelectronics and one of the authors of the article.

By changing the input signal, the strength of the transistor response can be modulated across a wide range, and connections can be created where none previously existed. This gives the transistor a behaviour that is comparable with that of the synapse, or the communication interface between two brain cells.

It is also a major step towards machine learning using organic electronics. Software-based artificial neural networks are currently used in machine learning to achieve what is known as “deep learning”. Software requires that the signals are transmitted between a huge number of nodes to simulate a single synapse, which takes considerable computing power and thus consumes considerable energy.

“We have developed hardware that does the same thing, using a single electronic component”, says Jennifer Gerasimov.

“Our organic electrochemical transistor can therefore carry out the work of thousands of normal transistors with an energy consumption that approaches the energy consumed when a human brain transmits signals between two cells”, confirms Simone Fabiano.

The transistor channel has not been constructed using the most common polymer used in organic electronics, PEDOT, but instead using a polymer of a newly-developed monomer, ETE-S, produced by Roger Gabrielsson, who also works at the Laboratory of Organic Electronics and is one of the authors of the article. ETE-S has several unique properties that make it perfectly suited for this application – it forms sufficiently long polymer chains, is water-soluble while the polymer form is not, and it produces polymers with an intermediate level of doping. The polymer PETE-S is produced in its doped form with an intrinsic negative charge to balance the positive charge carriers (it is p-doped).

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

An Evolvable Organic Electrochemical Transistor for Neuromorphic Applications by Jennifer Y. Gerasimov, Roger Gabrielsson, Robert Forchheimer, Eleni Stavrinidou, Daniel T. Simon, Magnus Berggren, Simone Fabiano. Advanced Science DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/advs.201801339 First published: 04 February 2019

This paper is open access.

There’s one other image associated this work that I want to include here,

Synaptic transistor. Sketch of the organic electrochemical transistor, formed by electropolymerization of ETE‐S in the transistor channel. The electrolyte solution is confined by a PDMS well (not shown). In this work, we define the input at the gate as the presynaptic signal and the response at the drain as the postsynaptic terminal. During operation, the drain voltage is kept constant while the gate is pulsed. Synaptic weight is defined as the amplitude of the current response to a standard gate voltage characterization pulse of −0.1 V. Different memory functionalities are accessible by applying gate voltage Courtesy: Linkoping University Researchers

Vitamin C helps gold nanowires grow

This research gives new meaning to ‘Take your vitamin C’ as can be seen in a February 19, 2019 news item on Nanowerk,

A boost of vitamin C helped Rice University scientists turn small gold nanorods into fine gold nanowires.

Common, mild ascorbic acid is the not-so-secret sauce that helped the Rice lab of chemist Eugene Zubarev grow pure batches of nanowires from stumpy nanorods without the drawbacks of previous techniques.

“There’s no novelty per se in using vitamin C to make gold nanostructures because there are many previous examples,” Zubarev said. “But the slow and controlled reduction achieved by vitamin C is surprisingly suitable for this type of chemistry in producing extra-long nanowires.”

A February 19, 2019 Rice University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more technical detail about the research

The Rice lab’s nanorods are about 25 nanometers thick at the start of the process – and remain that way while their length grows to become long nanowires. Above 1,000 nanometers in length, the objects are considered nanowires, and that matters. The wires’ aspect ratio – length over width – dictates how they absorb and emit light and how they conduct electrons. Combined with gold’s inherent metallic properties, that could enhance their value for sensing, diagnostic, imaging and therapeutic applications.

Zubarev and lead author Bishnu Khanal, a Rice chemistry alumnus, succeeded in making their particles go far beyond the transition from nanorod to nanowire, theoretically to unlimited length.

The researchers also showed the process is fully controllable and reversible. That makes it possible to produce nanowires of any desired length, and thus the desired configuration for electronic or light-manipulating applications, especially those that involve plasmons, the light-triggered oscillation of electrons on a metal’s surface.

The nanowires’ plasmonic response can be tuned to emit light from visible to infrared and theoretically far beyond, depending on their aspect ratios.

The process is slow, so it takes hours to grow a micron-long nanowire. “In this paper, we only reported structures up to 4 to 5 microns in length,” Zubarev said. “But we’re working to make much longer nanowires.”

The growth process only appeared to work with pentahedrally twinned gold nanorods, which contain five linked crystals. These five-sided rods — “Think of a pencil, but with five sides instead of six,” Zubarev said — are stable along the flat surfaces, but not at the tips.

“The tips also have five faces, but they have a different arrangement of atoms,” he said. “The energy of those atoms is slightly lower, and when new atoms are deposited there, they don’t migrate anywhere else.”

That keeps the growing wires from gaining girth. Every added atom increases the wire’s length, and thus the aspect ratio.

The nanorods’ reactive tips get help from a surfactant, CTAB, that covers the flat surfaces of nanorods. “The surfactant forms a very dense, tight bilayer on the sides, but it cannot cover the tips effectively,” Zubarev said.

That leaves the tips open to an oxidation or reduction reaction. The ascorbic acid provides electrons that combine with gold ions and settle at the tips in the form of gold atoms. And unlike carbon nanotubes in a solution that easily aggregate, the nanowires keep their distance from one another.

“The most valuable feature is that it is truly one-dimensional elongation of nanorods to nanowires,” Zubarev said. “It does not change the diameter, so in principal we can take small rods with an aspect ratio of maybe two or three and elongate them to 100 times the length.”
He said the process should apply to other metal nanorods, including silver.

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

Chemical Transformation of Nanorods to Nanowires: Reversible Growth and Dissolution of Anisotropic Gold Nanostructures by Bishnu P. Khanal and Eugene R. Zubarev. ACS Nano, 2019, 13 (2), pp 2370–2378 DOI: 10.1021/acsnano.8b09203 Publication Date (Web): February 12, 2019

Copyright © 2019 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall. Below you’ll find an image fo what I believe to be the vitamin C-enhanced gold nanowires.

Caption: Gold nanowires grown in the Rice University lab of chemist Eugene Zubarev promise to provide tunable plasmonic properties for optical and electronic applications. The wires can be controllably grown from nanorods, or reduced. Credit: Zubarev Research Group/Rice University

Quantum dots as pollen labels: tracking pollinators

Caption: This bee was caught after it visited a flower of which the pollen grains were labelled with quantum dots. Under the microscope one can see where the pollen was placed, and actually determine which insects carry the most pollen from which flower. Credit: Corneile Minnaar

Fascinating, yes? Next, the news and, then, the video about the research,

A February 14, 2019 news item on ScienceDaily announces research from South Africa,

A pollination biologist from Stellenbosch University in South Africa is using quantum dots to track the fate of individual pollen grains. This is breaking new ground in a field of research that has been hampered by the lack of a universal method to track pollen for over a century.

A February 13, 2019 Stellenbosh University press release (also on EurekAlert but published February 14, 2019) by Wiida Fourie-Basson, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

In an article published in the journal Methods in Ecology and Evolution this week, Dr Corneile Minnaar describes this novel method, which will enable pollination biologists to track the whole pollination process from the first visit by a pollinator to its endpoint – either successfully transferred to another flower’s stigma or lost along the way.

Despite over two hundred years of detailed research on pollination, Minnaar says, researchers do not know for sure where most of the microscopically tiny pollen grains actually land up once they leave flowers: “Plants produce massive amounts of pollen, but it looks like more than 90% of it never reaches stigmas. For the tiny fraction of pollen grains that make their way to stigmas, the journey is often unclear–which pollinators transferred the grains and from where?”

Starting in 2015, Minnaar decided to tread where many others have thus far failed, and took up the challenge through his PhD research in the Department of Botany and Zoology at Stellenbosch University (SU).

“Most plant species on earth are reliant on insects for pollination, including more than 30% of the food crops we eat. With insects facing rapid global decline, it is crucial that we understand which insects are important pollinators of different plants–this starts with tracking pollen,” he explains.

He came upon the idea for a pollen-tracking method after reading an article on the use of quantum dots to track cancer cells in rats (https://doi.org/10.1038/nbt994). Quantum dots are semiconductor nanocrystals that are so small, they behave like artificial atoms. When exposed to UV light, they emit extremely bright light in a range of possible colours. In the case of pollen grains, he figured out that quantum dots with “fat-loving” (lipophilic) ligands would theoretically stick to the fatty outer layer of pollen grains, called pollenkitt, and the glowing colours of the quantum dots can then be used to uniquely “label” pollen grains to see where they end up.

The next step was to find a cost-effective way to view the fluorescing pollen grains under a field dissection microscope. At that stage Minnaar was still using a toy pen from a family restaurant with a little UV LED light that he borrowed from one of his professors.
“I decided to design a fluorescence box that can fit under a dissection microscope. And, because I wanted people to use this method, I designed a box that can easily be 3D-printed at a cost of about R5,000, including the required electronic components.” (view video at https://youtu.be/YHs925F13t0

[or you can scroll down to the bottom of this post]

So far, the method and excitation box have proven itself as an easy and relatively inexpensive method to track individual pollen grains: “I’ve done studies where I caught the insects after they have visited the plant with quantum-dot labelled anthers, and you can see where the pollen is placed, and which insects actually carry more or less pollen.”
But the post-labelling part of the work still requires hours and hours of painstaking counting and checking: “I think I’ve probably counted more than a hundred thousand pollen grains these last three years,” he laughs.

As a postdoctoral fellow in the research group of Prof Bruce Anderson in the Department of Botany and Zoology at Stellenbosch University, Minnaar will continue to use the method to investigate the many unanswered questions in this field.

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

Using quantum dots as pollen labels to track the fates of individual pollen grains by Corneile Minnaar and Bruce Anderson. Methods in Ecology and Evolution DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/2041-210X.13155 First published: 25 January 2019

This paper is behind a paywall.

Here is the video,