Nano 2020: a US education initiative

The US Department of Agriculture has a very interesting funding opportunity, Higher Education Challenge (HEC) Grants Program, as evidenced by the Nano 2020 virtual reality (VR) classroom initiative. Before launching into the specifics of the Nano 2020 project, here’s a description of the funding program,

Projects supported by the Higher Education Challenge Grants Program will: (1) address a state, regional, national, or international educational need; (2) involve a creative or non-traditional approach toward addressing that need that can serve as a model to others; (3) encourage and facilitate better working relationships in the university science and education community, as well as between universities and the private sector, to enhance program quality and supplement available resources; and (4) result in benefits that will likely transcend the project duration and USDA support.

A February 3, 2020 University of Arizona news release by Stacy Pigott (also on EurekAlert but published February 7, 2020) announced a VR classroom where students will be able to interact with nanoscale data gained from agricultural sciences and the life sciences,

Sometimes the smallest of things lead to the biggest ideas. Case in point: Nano 2020, a University of Arizona-led initiative to develop curriculum and technology focused on educating students in the rapidly expanding field of nanotechnology.

The five-year, multi-university project recently met its goal of creating globally relevant and implementable curricula and instructional technologies, to include a virtual reality classroom, that enhance the capacity of educators to teach students about innovative nanotechnology applications in agriculture and the life sciences.

Here’s a video from the University of Arizona’s project proponents which illustrates their classroom,

For those who prefer text or like to have it as a backup, here’s the rest of the news release explaining the project,

Visualizing What is Too Small to be Seen

Nanotechnology involves particles and devices developed and used at the scale of 100 nanometers or less – to put that in perspective, the average diameter of a human hair is 80,000 nanometers. The extremely small scale can make comprehension challenging when it comes to learning about things that cannot be seen with the naked eye.

That’s where the Nano 2020 virtual reality classroom comes in. In a custom-developed VR classroom complete with a laboratory, nanoscale objects come to life for students thanks to the power of science data visualization.

Within the VR environment, students can interact with objects of nanoscale proportions – pick them up, turn them around and examine every nuance of things that would otherwise be too small to see. Students can also interact with their instructor or their peers. The Nano 2020 classroom allows for multi-player functionality, giving educators and students the opportunity to connect in a VR laboratory in real time, no matter where they are in the world.

“The virtual reality technology brings to life this complex content in a way that is oddly simple,” said Matt Mars, associate professor of agricultural leadership and innovation education in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and co-director of the Nano 2020 grant. “Imagine if you can take a student and they see a nanometer from a distance, and then they’re able to approach it and see how small it is by actually being in it. It’s mind-blowing, but in a way that students will be like, ‘Oh wow, that is really cool!'”

The technology was developed by Tech Core, a group of student programmers and developers led by director Ash Black in the Eller College of Management.

“The thing that I was the most fascinated with from the beginning was playing with a sense of scale,” said Black, a lifelong technologist and mentor-in-residence at the McGuire Center for Entrepreneurship. “What really intrigued me about virtual reality is that it is a tool where scale is elastic – you can dial it up and dial it down. Obviously, with nanotechnology, you’re dealing with very, very small things that nobody has seen yet, so it seemed like a perfect use of virtual reality.”

Black and Tech Core students including Robert Johnson, Hazza Alkaabi, Matthew Romero, Devon Oberdan, Brandon Erickson and Tim Lukau turned science data into an object, the object into an image, and the image into a 3D rendering that is functional in the VR environment they built.

“I think that being able to interact with objects of nanoscale data in this environment will result in a lot of light bulbs going off in the students’ minds. I think they’ll get it,” Black said. “To be able to experience something that is abstract – like, what does a carbon atom look like – well, if you can actually look at it, that’s suddenly a whole lot of context.”

The VR classroom complements the Nano 2020 curriculum, which globally expands the opportunities for nanotechnology education within the fields of agriculture and the life sciences.

Teaching the Workforce of the Future

“There have been great advances to the use of nanotechnology in the health sciences, but many more opportunities for innovation in this area still exist in the agriculture fields. The idea is to be able to advance these opportunities for innovation by providing some educational tools,” said Randy Burd, who was a nutritional sciences professor at the University of Arizona when he started the Nano 2020 project with funding from a National Institute of Food and Agriculture Higher Education Challenge grant through the United States Department of Agriculture. “It not only will give students the basics of the understanding of the applications, but will give them the innovative thought processes to think of new creations. That’s the real key.”

Unknown Object

The goal of the Nano 2020 team, which includes faculty from the University of Arizona, Northern Arizona University and Johns Hopkins University, was to create an online suite of undergraduate courses that was not university-specific, but could be accessed and added to by educators to reach students around the world.

To that end, the team built modular courses in nanotechnology subjects such as glycobiology, optical microscopy and histology, nanomicroscopy techniques, nutritional genomics, applications of magnetic nanotechnology, and design, innovation, and entrepreneurship, to name a few. An online library will be created to facilitate the ongoing expansion of the open-source curricula, which will be disseminated through novel technologies such as the virtual reality classroom.

“It isn’t practical to think that other universities and colleges are just going to be able to launch new courses, because they still need people to teach those courses,” Mars said. “So we created a robust and flexible set of module-based course packages that include exercises, lectures, videos, power points, tools. Instructors will be able to pull out components and integrate them into what already exists to continue to move toward a more comprehensive offering in nanotechnology education.”

According to Mars, the highly adaptable nature of the curriculum and the ability to deliver it in various ways were key components of the Nano 2020 project.

“We approach the project with a strong entrepreneurial mindset and heavy emphasis on innovation. We wanted it to be broadly defined and flexible in structure, so that other institutions access and model the curricula, see its foundation, and adapt that to what their needs were to begin to disseminate the notion of nanotechnology as an underdeveloped but really important field within the larger landscape of agriculture and life sciences,” Mars said. “We wanted to also provide an overlay to the scientific and technological components that would be about adoption in human application, and we approached that through an innovation and entrepreneurial leadership lens.”

Portions of the Nano 2020 curriculum are currently being offered as electives in a certificate program through the Department of Agriculture Education, Technology and Innovation at the University of Arizona. As it becomes more widely disseminated through the higher education community at large, researchers expect the curriculum and VR classroom technology to transcend the boundaries of discipline, institution and geography.

“An online open platform will exist where people can download components and courses, and all of it is framed by the technology, so that these experiences and research can be shared over this virtual reality component,” Burd said. “It’s technologically distinct from what exists now.”

“The idea is that it’s not just curriculum, but it’s the delivery of that curriculum, and the delivery of that curriculum in various ways,” Mars said. “There’s a relatability that comes with the virtual reality that I think is really cool. It allows students to relate to something as abstract as a nanometer, and that is what is really exciting.”

As best I can determine, this VR Nano 2020 classroom is not yet ready for a wide release and, for now, is being offered exclusively at the University of Arizona.

Improving batteries with cellulosic nanomaterials

This is a cellulose nanocrystal (CNC) story and in this story it’s derived from trees as opposed to banana skins or carrots or … A February 19, 2020 news item on Nanowerk announces CNC research from Northeastern University (Massachusetts, US),

Nature isn’t always generous with its secrets. That’s why some researchers look into unusual places for solutions to our toughest challenges, from powerful antibiotics hiding in the guts of tiny worms, to swift robots inspired by bats.

Now, Northeastern researchers have taken to the trees to look for ways to make new sustainable materials from abundant natural resources—specifically, within the chemical structure of microfibers that make up wood.

A team led by Hongli (Julie) Zhu, an assistant professor of mechanical and industrial engineering at Northeastern, is using unique nanomaterials derived from cellulose to improve the large and expensive kind of batteries needed to store renewable energy harnessed from sources such as sunlight and the wind.

A February 18, 2020 Northeastern University news release by Roberto Molar Candanosa, which originated the news item, provides more detail (Note: Links have been removed),

Cellulose, the most abundant natural polymer on Earth, is also the most important structural component of plants. It contains important molecular structures to improve batteries, reduce plastic pollution, and power the sort of electrical grids that could support entire communities with renewable energy, Zhu says.  

“We try to use polymers from wood, from bark, from seeds, from flowers, bacteria, green tea—from these kinds of plants to replace plastic,”  Zhu says.

One of the main challenges in storing energy from the sun, wind, and other types of renewables is that variation in factors such as the weather lead to inconsistent sources of power. 

That’s where batteries with large capacity come in. But storing the large amounts of energy that sunlight and the wind are able to provide requires a special kind of device.

The most advanced batteries to do that are called flow batteries, and are made with vanadium ions dissolved in acid in two separate tanks—one with a substance of negatively charged ions, and one with positive ones. The two solutions are continuously pumped from the tank into a cell, which functions like an engine for the battery. 

These substances are always separated by a special membrane that ensures that they exchange positive hydrogen ions without flowing into each other. That selective exchange of ions is the basis for the ability of the battery to charge and discharge energy. 

Flow batteries are ideal devices in which to store solar and wind energy because they can be tweaked to increase the amount of energy stored without compromising the amount of energy that can be generated. The bigger the tanks, the more energy the battery can store from non-polluting and practically inexhaustible resources.

But manufacturing them requires several moving pieces of hardware. As the membrane separating the two flowing substances decays, it can cause the vanadium ions from the solution to mix. That crossover reduces the stability of a battery, along with its capacity to store energy.

Zhu says the limited efficiency of that membrane, combined with  its high cost, are the main factors keeping flow batteries from being widely used in large-scale grids.

In a recent paper, Zhu reported that a new membrane made with cellulose nanocrystals demonstrates superior efficiency compared to other membranes used commonly in the market. The team tested different membranes made from cellulose nanocrystals to make flow batteries cheaper.

“The cost of our membrane per square meter is 147.68 US dollars, ” Zhu says, adding that her calculations do not include costs associated with marketing. “The price quote for the commercialized Nafion membrane is $1,321 per square meter.”

Their tests also showed that the membranes, made with support from the Rogers Corporation and its Innovation Center at Northeastern’s Kostas Research Institute, can offer substantially longer battery lifetimes than other membranes. 

Zhu’s naturally derived membrane is especially efficient because its cellular structure contains thousands of hydroxyl groups, which involve bonds of hydrogen and oxygen that make it easy for water to be transported in plants and trees. 

In flow batteries, that molecular makeup speeds the transport of protons as they flow through the membrane.

The membrane also consists of another polymer known as poly(vinylidene fluoride-hexafluoropropylene), which prevents the negatively and positively charged acids from mixing with each other. 

“For these materials, one of the challenges is that it is difficult to find a polymer that is proton conductive and that is also a material that is very stable in the flowing acid,” Zhu says. 

Because these materials are practically everywhere, membranes made with it can be easily put together at large scales needed for complex power grids. 

Unlike other expensive artificial materials that need to be concocted in a lab, cellulose can be extracted from natural sources including algae, solid waste, and bacteria. 

“A lot of material in nature is a composite, and if we disintegrate its components, we can use it to extract cellulose,” Zhu says. “Like waste from our yard, and a lot of solid waste that we don’t always know what to do with.” 

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper mentioned in the news release,

Stable and Highly Ion-Selective Membrane Made from Cellulose Nanocrystals for Aqueous Redox Flow Batteries by Alolika Mukhopadhyay, Zheng Cheng, Avi Natan, Yi Ma, Yang Yang, Daxian Cao, Wei Wan, Hongli Zhu. Nano Lett. 2019, 19, 12, 8979-8989 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.nanolett.9b03964Publication Date:November 8, 2019 Copyright © 2019 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Quantum processor woven from light

Weaving a quantum processor from light is a jaw-dropping event (as far as I’m concerned). An October 17, 2019 news item on phys.org makes the announcement,

An international team of scientists from Australia, Japan and the United States has produced a prototype of a large-scale quantum processor made of laser light.

Based on a design ten years in the making, the processor has built-in scalability that allows the number of quantum components—made out of light—to scale to extreme numbers. The research was published in Science today [October 18, 2019; Note: I cannot explain the discrepancy between the dates]].

Quantum computers promise fast solutions to hard problems, but to do this they require a large number of quantum components and must be relatively error free. Current quantum processors are still small and prone to errors. This new design provides an alternative solution, using light, to reach the scale required to eventually outperform classical computers on important problems.

Caption: The entanglement structure of a large-scale quantum processor made of light. Credit: Shota Yokoyama 2019

An October 18, 2019 RMIT University (Australia) press release (also on EurekAlert but published October 17, 2019), which originated the news time, expands on the theme,

“While today’s quantum processors are impressive, it isn’t clear if the current designs can be scaled up to extremely large sizes,” notes Dr Nicolas Menicucci, Chief Investigator at the Centre for Quantum Computation and Communication Technology (CQC2T) at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia.

“Our approach starts with extreme scalability – built in from the very beginning – because the processor, called a cluster state, is made out of light.”

Using light as a quantum processor

A cluster state is a large collection of entangled quantum components that performs quantum computations when measured in a particular way.

“To be useful for real-world problems, a cluster state must be both large enough and have the right entanglement structure. In the two decades since they were proposed, all previous demonstrations of cluster states have failed on one or both of these counts,” says Dr Menicucci. “Ours is the first ever to succeed at both.”

To make the cluster state, specially designed crystals convert ordinary laser light into a type of quantum light called squeezed light, which is then weaved into a cluster state by a network of mirrors, beamsplitters and optical fibres.

The team’s design allows for a relatively small experiment to generate an immense two-dimensional cluster state with scalability built in. Although the levels of squeezing – a measure of quality – are currently too low for solving practical problems, the design is compatible with approaches to achieve state-of-the-art squeezing levels.

The team says their achievement opens up new possibilities for quantum computing with light.

“In this work, for the first time in any system, we have made a large-scale cluster state whose structure enables universal quantum computation.” Says Dr Hidehiro Yonezawa, Chief Investigator, CQC2T at UNSW Canberra. “Our experiment demonstrates that this design is feasible – and scalable.”

###

The experiment was an international effort, with the design developed through collaboration by Dr Menicucci at RMIT, Dr Rafael Alexander from the University of New Mexico and UNSW Canberra researchers Dr Hidehiro Yonezawa and Dr Shota Yokoyama. A team of experimentalists at the University of Tokyo, led by Professor Akira Furusawa, performed the ground-breaking experiment.

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

Generation of time-domain-multiplexed two-dimensional cluster state by Warit Asavanant, Yu Shiozawa, Shota Yokoyama, Baramee Charoensombutamon, Hiroki Emura, Rafael N. Alexander, Shuntaro Takeda, Jun-ichi Yoshikawa, Nicolas C. Menicucci, Hidehiro Yonezawa, Akira Furusawa. Science 18 Oct 2019: Vol. 366, Issue 6463, pp. 373-376 DOI: 10.1126/science.aay2645

This paper is behind a paywall.

Graphene fatigue

Graphene fatigue operates under the same principle as metal fatigue. Subject graphene to stress over and over and at some point it (just like metal) will fail. Scientists at the University of Toronto (Ontatrio, Canada) and Rice University (Texas, US) have determined just how much stress graphene can withstand before breaking according to a January 28, 2020 University of Toronto news release by Tyler Irving (also on EurekAlert but published on January 29, 2020),

Graphene is a paradox. It is the thinnest material known to science, yet also one of the strongest. Now, research from University of Toronto Engineering shows that graphene is also highly resistant to fatigue — able to withstand more than a billion cycles of high stress before it breaks.

Graphene resembles a sheet of interlocking hexagonal rings, similar to the pattern you might see in bathroom flooring tiles. At each corner is a single carbon atom bonded to its three nearest neighbours. While the sheet could extend laterally over any area, it is only one atom thick.

The intrinsic strength of graphene has been measured at more than 100 gigapascals, among the highest values recorded for any material. But materials don’t always fail because the load exceeds their maximum strength. Stresses that are small but repetitive can weaken materials by causing microscopic dislocations and fractures that slowly accumulate over time, a process known as fatigue.

“To understand fatigue, imagine bending a metal spoon,” says Professor Tobin Filleter, one of the senior authors of the study, which was recently published in Nature Materials. “The first time you bend it, it just deforms. But if you keep working it back and forth, eventually it’s going to break in two.”

The research team — consisting of Filleter, fellow University of Toronto Engineering professors Chandra Veer Singh and Yu Sun, their students, and collaborators at Rice University — wanted to know how graphene would stand up to repeated stresses. Their approach included both physical experiments and computer simulations.

“In our atomistic simulations, we found that cyclic loading can lead to irreversible bond reconfigurations in the graphene lattice, causing catastrophic failure on subsequent loading,” says Singh, who along with postdoctoral fellow Sankha Mukherjee led the modelling portion of the study. “This is unusual behaviour in that while the bonds change, there are no obvious cracks or dislocations, which would usually form in metals, until the moment of failure.”

PhD candidate Teng Cui, who is co-supervised by Filleter and Sun, used the Toronto Nanofabrication Centre to build a physical device for the experiments. The design consisted of a silicon chip etched with half a million tiny holes only a few micrometres in diameter. The graphene sheet was stretched over these holes, like the head of a tiny drum.

Using an atomic force microscope, Cui then lowered a diamond-tipped probe into the hole to push on the graphene sheet, applying anywhere from 20 to 85 per cent of the force that he knew would break the material.

“We ran the cycles at a rate of 100,000 times per second,” says Cui. “Even at 70 per cent of the maximum stress, the graphene didn’t break for more than three hours, which works out to over a billion cycles. At lower stress levels, some of our trials ran for more than 17 hours.”

As with the simulations, the graphene didn’t accumulate cracks or other tell-tale signs of stress — it either broke or it didn’t.

“Unlike metals, there is no progressive damage during fatigue loading of graphene,” says Sun. “Its failure is global and catastrophic, confirming simulation results.”

The team also tested a related material, graphene oxide, which has small groups of atoms such as oxygen and hydrogen bonded to both the top and bottom of the sheet. Its fatigue behaviour was more like traditional materials, in that the failure was more progressive and localized. This suggests that the simple, regular structure of graphene is a major contributor to its unique properties.

“There are no other materials that have been studied under fatigue conditions that behave the way graphene does,” says Filleter. “We’re still working on some new theories to try and understand this.”

In terms of commercial applications, Filleter says that graphene-containing composites — mixtures of conventional plastic and graphene — are already being produced and used in sports equipment such as tennis rackets and skis.

In the future, such materials may begin to be used in cars or in aircraft, where the emphasis on light and strong materials is driven by the need to reduce weight, improve fuel efficiency and enhance environmental performance.

“There have been some studies to suggest that graphene-containing composites offer improved resistance to fatigue, but until now, nobody had measured the fatigue behaviour of the underlying material,” he says. “Our goal in doing this was to get at that fundamental understanding so that in the future, we’ll be able to design composites that work even better.”

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

Fatigue of graphene by Teng Cui, Sankha Mukherjee, Parambath M. Sudeep, Guillaume Colas, Farzin Najafi, Jason Tam, Pulickel M. Ajayan, Chandra Veer Singh, Yu Sun & Tobin Filleter. Nature Materials (2020) DOI: DOIhttps://doi.org/10.1038/s41563-019-0586-y Published: 20 January 2020

This paper is behind a paywall.

‘What becomes of the broken-hearted?’ Trinity College Dublin scientists may have an answer

While Valentine’s Day as celebrated here in Canada and elsewhere (but not everywhere) on February 14 of each year is usually marked in a purely joyous fashion,I’m going to focus on heartbreak. Here is one of the greatest versions of ‘What becomes of the broken-hearted?’ Then, repair follows in the context of some cardiac research coming out of Ireland,

Thank you Joan Osborne and the Funk Brothers. If you haven’t seen ‘Standing in the shadows of Motown’, you may want to make a point of it.

As for the musical question in the headline, researchers at Trinity College Dublin may have an answer of sorts. A February 13, 2020 Trinity College Dublin press release (also on EurekAlert) describes how broken hearts can be mended,

Bioengineers from Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, have developed a prototype patch that does the same job as crucial aspects of heart tissue.

Their patch withstands the mechanical demands and mimics the electrical signalling properties that allow our hearts to pump blood rhythmically round our bodies.

Their work essentially takes us one step closer to a functional design that could mend a broken heart.

One in six men and one in seven women in the EU will suffer a heart attack at some point in their lives. Worldwide, heart disease kills more women and men – regardless of race, than any other disease.

Cardiac patches lined with heart cells can be applied surgically to restore heart tissue in patients who have had damaged tissue removed after a heart attack and to repair congenital heart defects in infants and children. Ultimately, though, the goal is to create cell-free patches that can restore the synchronous beating of the heart cells, without impairing the heart muscle movement.

The bioengineers report their work, which takes us one step closer to such a reality, in the journal Advanced Functional Materials.

Michael Monaghan, ussher assistant professor in biomedical engineering at Trinity, and senior author on the paper, said:

“Despite some advances in the field, heart disease still places a huge burden on our healthcare systems and the life quality of patients worldwide. It affects all of us either directly or indirectly through family and friends. As a result, researchers are continuously looking to develop new treatments which can include stem cell treatments, biomaterial gel injections and assistive devices.”

“Ours is one of few studies that looks at a traditional material, and through effective design allows us to mimic the direction-dependent mechanical movement of the heart, which can be sustained repeatably. This was achieved through a novel method called ‘melt electrowriting’ and through close collaboration with the suppliers located nationally we were able to customise the process to fit our design needs.”

This work was performed in the Trinity Centre for Biomedical Engineering, based in the Trinity Biomedical Sciences Institute in collaboration with Spraybase®, a subsidiary of Avectas Ltd. It was funded by Enterprise Ireland through the Innovation Partnership Program (IPP).

Dr Gillian Hendy, director of Spraybase® is a co-author on the paper. Dr Hendy commended the team at Trinity on the work completed and advancements made on the Spraybase® Melt Electrowriting (MEW) System. The success achieved by the team highlights the potential applications of this novel technology in the cardiac field and succinctly captures the benefits of industry and academic collaboration, through platforms such as the IPP.

Engineering replacement materials for heart tissue is challenging since it is an organ that is constantly moving and contracting. The mechanical demands of heart muscle (myocardium) cannot be met using polyester-based thermoplastic polymers, which are predominantly the approved options for biomedical applications.

However, the functionality of thermoplastic polymers could be leveraged by its structural geometry. The bioengineers then set about making a patch that could control the expansion of a material in multiple directions and tune this using an engineering design approach.

The patches were manufactured via melt electrowriting – a core technology of Spraybase® – which is reproducible, accurate, and scalable. The patches were also coated with the electroconductive polymer polypyrrole to provide electrical conductivity while maintaining cell compatibility.

The patch withstood repeated stretching, which is a dominant concern for cardiac biomaterials, and showed good elasticity, to accurately mimic that key property of heart muscle.

Professor Monaghan added:

“Essentially, our material addresses a lot of requirements. The bulk material is currently approved for medical device use, the design accommodates the movement of the pumping heart, and has been functionalised to accommodate signaling between isolated contractile tissues.”

“This study currently reports the development of our method and design, but we are now looking forward to furthering the next generation of designs and materials with the eventual aim of applying this patch as a therapy for a heart attack.”

Dr Dinorath Olvera, Trinity, first author on the paper, added:

“Our electroconductive patches support electrical conduction between biological tissue in an ex vivo model. These results therefore represent a significant step towards generating a bioengineered patch capable of recapitulating aspects of heart tissue – namely its mechanical movement and electrical signalling.”

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

Electroconductive Melt Electrowritten Patches Matching the Mechanical Anisotropy of Human Myocardium by Dinorath Olvera, Mina Sohrabi Molina, Gillian Hendy, Michael G. Monaghan. Advanced Functional Materials DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/adfm.201909880 First published: 12 February 2020

This paper is behind a paywall.

Here are links, should you be interested in the company partnering with the researchers, Spraybase®, or its parent company, Avectas Ltd.

Finally, the singer who made ‘What becomes of the broken-hearted?’ a hit in 1965 was Jimmy Ruffin,

Enjoy.

A lipid-based memcapacitor,for neuromorphic computing

Caption: Researchers at ORNL’s Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences demonstrated the first example of capacitance in a lipid-based biomimetic membrane, opening nondigital routes to advanced, brain-like computation. Credit: Michelle Lehman/Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Dept. of Energy

The last time I wrote about memcapacitors (June 30, 2014 posting: Memristors, memcapacitors, and meminductors for faster computers), the ideas were largely theoretical; I believe this work is the first research I’ve seen on the topic. From an October 17, 2019 news item on ScienceDaily,

Researchers at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory ]ORNL], the University of Tennessee and Texas A&M University demonstrated bio-inspired devices that accelerate routes to neuromorphic, or brain-like, computing.

Results published in Nature Communications report the first example of a lipid-based “memcapacitor,” a charge storage component with memory that processes information much like synapses do in the brain. Their discovery could support the emergence of computing networks modeled on biology for a sensory approach to machine learning.

An October 16, 2019 ORNL news release (also on EurekAlert but published Oct. 17, 2019), which originated the news item, provides more detail about the work,

“Our goal is to develop materials and computing elements that work like biological synapses and neurons—with vast interconnectivity and flexibility—to enable autonomous systems that operate differently than current computing devices and offer new functionality and learning capabilities,” said Joseph Najem, a recent postdoctoral researcher at ORNL’s Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences, a DOE Office of Science User Facility, and current assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Penn State.

The novel approach uses soft materials to mimic biomembranes and simulate the way nerve cells communicate with one another.

The team designed an artificial cell membrane, formed at the interface of two lipid-coated water droplets in oil, to explore the material’s dynamic, electrophysiological properties. At applied voltages, charges build up on both sides of the membrane as stored energy, analogous to the way capacitors work in traditional electric circuits.

But unlike regular capacitors, the memcapacitor can “remember” a previously applied voltage and—literally—shape how information is processed. The synthetic membranes change surface area and thickness depending on electrical activity. These shapeshifting membranes could be tuned as adaptive filters for specific biophysical and biochemical signals.

“The novel functionality opens avenues for nondigital signal processing and machine learning modeled on nature,” said ORNL’s Pat Collier, a CNMS staff research scientist.

A distinct feature of all digital computers is the separation of processing and memory. Information is transferred back and forth from the hard drive and the central processor, creating an inherent bottleneck in the architecture no matter how small or fast the hardware can be.

Neuromorphic computing, modeled on the nervous system, employs architectures that are fundamentally different in that memory and signal processing are co-located in memory elements—memristors, memcapacitors and meminductors.

These “memelements” make up the synaptic hardware of systems that mimic natural information processing, learning and memory.

Systems designed with memelements offer advantages in scalability and low power consumption, but the real goal is to carve out an alternative path to artificial intelligence, said Collier.

Tapping into biology could enable new computing possibilities, especially in the area of “edge computing,” such as wearable and embedded technologies that are not connected to a cloud but instead make on-the-fly decisions based on sensory input and past experience.

Biological sensing has evolved over billions of years into a highly sensitive system with receptors in cell membranes that are able to pick out a single molecule of a specific odor or taste. “This is not something we can match digitally,” Collier said.

Digital computation is built around digital information, the binary language of ones and zeros coursing through electronic circuits. It can emulate the human brain, but its solid-state components do not compute sensory data the way a brain does.

“The brain computes sensory information pushed through synapses in a neural network that is reconfigurable and shaped by learning,” said Collier. “Incorporating biology—using biomembranes that sense bioelectrochemical information—is key to developing the functionality of neuromorphic computing.”

While numerous solid-state versions of memelements have been demonstrated, the team’s biomimetic elements represent new opportunities for potential “spiking” neural networks that can compute natural data in natural ways.

Spiking neural networks are intended to simulate the way neurons spike with electrical potential and, if the signal is strong enough, pass it on to their neighbors through synapses, carving out learning pathways that are pruned over time for efficiency.

A bio-inspired version with analog data processing is a distant aim. Current early-stage research focuses on developing the components of bio-circuitry.

“We started with the basics, a memristor that can weigh information via conductance to determine if a spike is strong enough to be broadcast through a network of synapses connecting neurons,” said Collier. “Our memcapacitor goes further in that it can actually store energy as an electric charge in the membrane, enabling the complex ‘integrate and fire’ activity of neurons needed to achieve dense networks capable of brain-like computation.”

The team’s next steps are to explore new biomaterials and study simple networks to achieve more complex brain-like functionalities with memelements.

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

Dynamical nonlinear memory capacitance in biomimetic membranes by Joseph S. Najem, Md Sakib Hasan, R. Stanley Williams, Ryan J. Weiss, Garrett S. Rose, Graham J. Taylor, Stephen A. Sarles & C. Patrick Collier. Nature Communications volume 10, Article number: 3239 (2019) DOI: DOIhttps://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-019-11223-8 Published July 19, 2019

This paper is open access.

One final comment, you might recognize one of the authors (R. Stanley Williams) who in 2008 helped launch ‘memristor’ research.

Comfortable, bulletproof clothing for Canada’s Department of National Defence

h/t to Miriam Halpenny’s October 14, 2019 Castanet article as seen on the Vancouverisawesome website for this news about bulletproof clothing being developed for Canada’s National Department of Defence. I found a September 4, 2019 University of British Columbia Okanagan news release describing the research and the funds awarded to it,

The age-old technique of dressing in layers is a tried and tested way to protect from the elements. Now thanks to $1.5 million in new funding for UBC’s Okanagan campus, researchers are pushing the practice to new limits by creating a high-tech body armour solution with multiple layers of protection against diverse threats.

“Layers are great for regulating body heat, protecting us from inclement weather and helping us to survive in extreme conditions,” says Keith Culver, director of UBC’s Survive and Thrive Applied Research (STAR) initiative, which is supporting the network of researchers who will be working together over the next three years. “The idea is to design and integrate some of the most advanced fabrics and materials into garments that are comfortable, practical and can even stop a bullet.”

The research network working to develop these new Comfort-Optimized Materials For Operational Resilience, Thermal-transport and Survivability (COMFORTS) aims to create a futuristic new body armour solution by combining an intelligent, moisture-wicking base layer that has insulating properties with a layer of lightweight, ballistic-resistant material using cross-linker technology. It will also integrate a water, dust and gas repellent outer layer and will be equipped with comfort sensors to monitor the wearer’s response to extreme conditions.

“Although the basic idea seems simple, binding all these different materials and technologies together into a smart armour solution that is durable, reliable and comfortable is incredibly complex,” says Kevin Golovin, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at UBCO and principal investigator of the COMFORTS research network. “We’re putting into practice years of research and expertise in materials science to turn the concept into reality.”

The COMFORTS network is a collaboration between the University of British Columbia, the University of Alberta and the University of Victoria and is supported by a number of industrial partners. The network has received a $1.5M contribution agreement from the Department of National Defence through its Innovation for Defence Excellence and Security (IDEaS) program, designed to support innovation in defence and security.

“The safety and security threats faced by our military are ever-changing,” says Culver. “Hazards extend beyond security threats from foreign forces to natural disasters now occurring more frequently than ever before. Almost every year we’re seeing natural disasters, forest fires and floods that put not just ordinary Canadians at risk but also the personnel that respond directly to those threats. Our goal is to better protect those who put their lives on the line to protect the rest of us.”

While the initial COMFORTS technologies developed will be for defence and security applications, Culver says the potential extends well beyond the military.

“Imagine a garment that could keep its users comfortable and safe as they explore the tundra of the Canadian arctic, fight a raging forest fire or respond to a corrosive chemical spill,” says Culver. “I imagine everyone from first responders to soldiers to extreme athletes being impacted by this kind of innovation in protective clothing.”

The research will be ongoing with eight projects planned over the next three years. Some of the protective materials testing will take place at UBC’s STAR Impact Research Facility (SIRF), located just north of UBC’s Okanagan campus. The ballistic and blast simulation facility is the only one of its kind in Canada—it supports research and testing of ballistic and blast-resistant armour, ceramic and other composite materials, as well as helmets and other protective gear.

“I anticipate we will see some exciting new, field-tested technologies developed within the next few years,” says Culver. “I look forward to seeing where this collaboration will lead us.”

To learn more about the COMFORTS project, visit: ok.ubc.ca/okanagan-stories/textile-tech

UBC Expert Q&A

Western Canada primed to be defense and security research hotspot

World-class vineyards and sunny lakeside resorts have long been the reputation for BC’s Okanagan Valley. That reputation has expanded with Kelowna’s growth as a tech hub, according to Professor Keith Culver, director of UBC’s Survive and Thrive Research (STAR) initiative, but core expertise in defense and security research has also been rapidly expanding since UBC launched the STAR initiative five years ago.

Culver is a professor, legal theorist, self-described convener and coach with proven expertise assembling multi-disciplinary research teams working at the vanguard of innovation. One of these teams, led by Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering Kevin Golovin, was recently awarded a $1.5 million contract by the Department of National Defense to develop next-generation, high-performance body armour that increases the safety and comfort of Canadian soldiers.

What is UBC’s STAR initiative?

UBC STAR is a group of researchers and partners working together to solve human performance challenges. We know that solving complex problems requires a multi-disciplinary approach, so we build teams with specialized expertise from across both our campuses and other Western Canadian universities. Then we blend that expertise with the know-how and production capabilities of private and public sector partners to put solutions into practice. Above all, STAR helps university researchers and partners to work together in new, more productive ways.

You recently received considerable new funding from the Department of National Defence. Can you tell us about that research

A team of researchers from UBC, the University of Alberta and the University of Victoria have established a research network to invent and test new materials for the protection of humans operating in extreme environments – in this case, soldiers doing their jobs on foot. Assistant Professor Kevin Golovin of UBC Okanagan’s School of Engineering is leading the network with support from UBC STAR. The network brings together three leading Western Canadian universities to work together with industry to develop new technologies for the defence and security sector.

The network is developing several kinds of protective materials and hazard sensors for use in protective armour for soldiers and first responders. The name of the network captures its focus nicely: Comfort-Optimized Materials For Operational Resilience, Thermal-transport and Survivabilty (COMFORTS). Researchers in engineering, chemistry and other disciplines are developing new textile technologies and smart armour solutions that will be rigorously tested for thermal resistance to increase soldier comfort. We’re fortunate to be working with a great group of companies ready to turn our research into solutions ready for use. We’ll help to solve the challenges facing Canadian first responders and soldiers while enabling Canadian companies to sell those solutions to international markets.

What does the safety and security landscape look like in Western Canada?

I think there’s a perception out there that this kind of research is only happening in places like Halifax, Toronto or Waterloo. Western Canadian expertise is sometimes overlooked by Ottawa and Toronto, but there’s incredible expertise and cutting-edge research happening here in the west, and we are fortunate to have a strong private sector partner community that understands safety and security problems in military contexts, and in forestry, mining and wildfire and flood response. Our understanding of hazardous environments gives us a head start in putting technologies and strategies to work safely in extreme conditions, and we’re coming to realize that our creative solutions can both help Canadians and others around the world.

Why do companies want to work with UBC STAR and its Western Canadian partners?

We have great researchers and great facilities – our blast simulator and ballistics range are second to none – but we offer much more than expertise and equipment. UBC STAR is fundamentally about making the most of collaboration. We work together with our partners to understand the nature of problems and what could contribute to a solution. We readily draw on expertise from multiple universities and firms to assemble the right team. And we know that we are in the middle of a great living lab for testing solutions –with rural and urban areas of varying sizes, climates and terrains. We’re situated in an ideal place to work through technology development, while identifying the strategies and standards needed to put innovative technology to good use.

How do you expect this sector to develop over the next decade?

I see a boom coming in this sector. In Canada, and around the world, we are witnessing a rise in natural disasters that put first responders and others at risk, and our research can help improve their safety. At the same time, we are seeing a rise in global political tensions calling for Canadian military deployment in peacekeeping and other support roles. Our military needs help protecting its members so they can do their jobs in dangerous places. And, of course, when we develop protective materials for first responders and soldiers, the same solutions can be easily adapted for use in sport and health – such as protecting children playing contact sports or our aging population from slip and fall injuries. I think I speak for everyone involved in this research when I say that it’s incredibly rewarding to see how solutions found addressing one question often have far broader benefits for Canadians in every walk of life.

To learn more about STAR, visit: star.ubc.ca

About UBC’s Okanagan campus

UBC’s Okanagan campus is an innovative hub for research and learning in the heart of British Columbia’s stunning Okanagan Valley. Ranked among the top 20 public universities in the world, UBC is home to bold thinking and discoveries that make a difference. Established in 2005, the Okanagan campus combines a globally recognized UBC education with a tight-knit and entrepreneurial community that welcomes students and faculty from around the world.

To find out more, visit: ok.ubc.ca

Courtesy: UBC Okanagan

I have featured bulletproof clothing here in a November 4, 2013 posting featuring a business suit that included carbon nanotubes providing protection from bullets. Here’s where you can order one.

Call for 2020 Canadian Science Policy Conference panel submissions

I just received (via email on February 7, 2020) the call for the 2020 (or 12th annual) Canadian Science Policy Conference (CSPC) panel submissions. After many years in Ottawa, the conference is moving a few feet over the provincial border between Ontario and Quebec into the city of Gatineau. For anyone not familiar with the Ottawa region, Gatineau is next door (from the Gatineau Wikipedia entry), Note: Links have been removed,

Gatineau (/ˈɡætɪnoʊ/; French: [ɡatino]) is a city in western Quebec, Canada. It is the fourth-largest city in the province after Montreal, Quebec City, and Laval. It is located on the northern bank of the Ottawa River, immediately across from Ottawa, Ontario, together with which it forms Canada’s National Capital Region. [emphasis mine] As of 2016, Gatineau had a population of 276,245,[6] and a metropolitan population of 332,057.[7] The Ottawa–Gatineau census metropolitan area had a population of 1,323,783.[8]

The 2020 CSPC is being held from November 23 – 25, 2020 at the Hilton Lac-Leamy,in Gatineau, Quebec. On the plus side (I guess), you can fly to Ottawa as usual.

At a guess, the Ottawa location is the most economically advantageous choice for the Canadian Science Policy Conference but I’m sorry to see they haven’t made any attempts to organize at least one conference outside that very constrained geography in something like seven years.

Organizers have established a deadline of April 10, 2020 for submissions. Here’s more from the CSPC 2020 themes page,

CSPC 2020 Themes and Topics:

List of the themes and topics

CSPC 2020 Special theme: Grand Challenges

  • Climate Change, Net Zero Plan
  • Global Health:  Pandemics, Ageing, AMR
  • Cyber Security & Digital Transformation
  • Disruptive Technologies
  • Energy & Resources
  • Sustainable Development Goals

Science and Society

  • Science communication
  • Information/Mis-information; How science can help
  • Science and society relationship
  • Contributing to solutions – the social and human sciences
  • Science and democracy
  • A changing workplace

Science and Policy

  • Government Science
  • Policy for Emerging Technologies
  • Best practices in research and translation
  • Equity, diversity and inclusion
  • Open Science
  • Linking science to policy; new trends in EBDM
  • Modernising the science ecosystem
  • Research excellence
  • Science Policy at Muinicpal and local level
  • Big data
  • The Decade of Ocean, declared by the UN

Science, Innovation and Economic Developmennt

  • Knowledge translation/technology transfer
  • Regional innovation capacity
  • Connecting science to innovation
  • Industrial R&D and Private sector innovation
  • Transition to low carbon economy
  • New Decade: Perspectives from industry

Science and International Affairs and Security

  • Trends in international collaboration
  • Risks and uncertainties in International collaboration
  • Science diplomacy in a polarized world
  • International agencies and the deglobalized world
  • Space – managing the “international commons”

Science and the Next Generation

  • Skill Development
  • Mobilty of researchers
  • Research training – how and for what
  • Science as a career
  • Next generation of science activists

Panel organizers are requested to develop the content of their proposals with a solution-oriented approach that covers important questions such as;

Why is this a pressing issue that Canada faces today and/or over the next decade? 

How and what kind of scientific and/or traditional knowledge can help address the challenge?

How do we strengthen the Canadian institutions and policies that support the production, integration and use of knowledge in tackling this challenge?

How do we more effectively link the public, private and academic sectors in tackling this challenge?

How could the public be engaged in addressing this challenge?

How should CSPC play a role in helping to find solutions to this priority challenge?

The proposed panel needs not to answer or discuss each of these questions but encouraged to take into consideration answering a few of the above questions.    

I can’t find a link to an online submission or any other information about submitting a proposal but I have sent a query via Twitter and will hopefully be able to update this soon.

One final bit, the Canadian Science Policy Centre (CSPC) organizes the annual Canadian Science Policy Conference which is also abbreviated as CSPC.