Author Archives: Maryse de la Giroday

viral symphOny: an electronic soundwork à propos during a pandemic

Artist Joseph Nechvatal has a longstanding interest in viruses, i.e., computer viruses and that work seems strangely apt as we cope with the COVID-19 pandemic. He very kindly sent me some à propos information (received via an April 5, 2020 email),

I wanted to let you know that _viral symphOny_ (2006-2008), my 1 hour 40 minute collaborative electronic noise music symphony, created using custom artificial life C++ software based on the viral phenomenon model, is available to the world for free here:

https://archive.org/details/ViralSymphony

Before you click the link and dive in you might find these bits of information interesting. BTW, I do provide the link again at the end of this post.

Origin of and concept behind the term ‘computer virus’

As I’ve learned to expect, there are two and possibly more origin stories for the term ‘computer virus’. Refreshingly, there is near universal agreement in the material I’ve consulted about John von Neuman’s role as the originator of the concept. After that, it gets more complicated; Wikipedia credits a writer for christening the term (Note: Links have been removed),

The first academic work on the theory of self-replicating computer programs[17] was done in 1949 by John von Neumann who gave lectures at the University of Illinois about the “Theory and Organization of Complicated Automata”. The work of von Neumann was later published as the “Theory of self-reproducing automata”. In his essay von Neumann described how a computer program could be designed to reproduce itself.[18] Von Neumann’s design for a self-reproducing computer program is considered the world’s first computer virus, and he is considered to be the theoretical “father” of computer virology.[19] In 1972, Veith Risak directly building on von Neumann’s work on self-replication, published his article “Selbstreproduzierende Automaten mit minimaler Informationsübertragung” (Self-reproducing automata with minimal information exchange).[20] The article describes a fully functional virus written in assembler programming language for a SIEMENS 4004/35 computer system. In 1980 Jürgen Kraus wrote his diplom thesis “Selbstreproduktion bei Programmen” (Self-reproduction of programs) at the University of Dortmund.[21] In his work Kraus postulated that computer programs can behave in a way similar to biological viruses.

Science fiction

The first known description of a self-reproducing program in a short story occurs in 1970 in The Scarred Man by Gregory Benford [emphasis mine] which describes a computer program called VIRUS which, when installed on a computer with telephone modem dialing capability, randomly dials phone numbers until it hit a modem that is answered by another computer. It then attempts to program the answering computer with its own program, so that the second computer will also begin dialing random numbers, in search of yet another computer to program. The program rapidly spreads exponentially through susceptible computers and can only be countered by a second program called VACCINE.[22]

The idea was explored further in two 1972 novels, When HARLIE Was One by David Gerrold and The Terminal Man by Michael Crichton, and became a major theme of the 1975 novel The Shockwave Rider by John Brunner.[23]

The 1973 Michael Crichton sci-fi movie Westworld made an early mention of the concept of a computer virus, being a central plot theme that causes androids to run amok.[24] Alan Oppenheimer’s character summarizes the problem by stating that “…there’s a clear pattern here which suggests an analogy to an infectious disease process, spreading from one…area to the next.” To which the replies are stated: “Perhaps there are superficial similarities to disease” and, “I must confess I find it difficult to believe in a disease of machinery.”[25]

Scientific American has an October 19, 2001 article citing four different experts’ answer to the question “When did the term ‘computer virus’ arise?” Three of the experts cite academics as the source for the term (usually Fred Cohen). One of the experts does mention writers (for the most part, not the same writers cited in the Wikipedia entry quotation in the above).

One expert discusses the concept behind the term and confirms what most people will suspect. Interestingly, this expert’s origin story varies somewhat from the other three.

Computer virus concept

From “When did the term ‘computer virus’ arise?” (Joseph Motola response),

The concept behind the first malicious computer programs was described years ago in the Computer Recreations column of Scientific American. The metaphor of the “computer virus” was adopted because of the similarity in form, function and consequence with biological viruses that attack the human system. Computer viruses can insert themselves in another program, taking over control or adversely affecting the function of the program.

Like their biological counterparts, computer viruses can spread rapidly and self-replicate systematically. They also mimic living viruses in the way they must adapt through mutation [emphases mine] to the development of resistance within a system: the author of a computer virus must upgrade his creation in order to overcome the resistance (antiviral programs) or to take advantage of new weakness or loophole within the system.

Computer viruses also act like biologics [emphasis mine] in the way they can be set off: they can be virulent from the outset of the infection, or they can be activated by a specific event (logic bomb). But computer viruses can also be triggered at a specific time (time bomb). Most viruses act innocuous towards a system until their specific condition is met.

The computer industry has expanded the metaphor to now include terms like inoculation, disinfection, quarantine and sanitation [emphases mine]. Now if your system gets infected by a computer virus you can quarantine it until you can call the “virus doctor” who can direct you to the appropriate “virus clinic” where your system can be inoculated and disinfected and an anti-virus program can be prescribed.

More about Joseph Nechvatal and his work on viruses

The similarities between computer and biological viruses are striking and with that in mind, here’s a clip featuring part of viral symphOny,

Before giving you a second link to Nechvatal’s entire viral symphOny, here’s some context about him and his work, from the Joseph Nechvatal Wikipedia entry, (Note: Links have been removed),

He began using computers to make “paintings” in 1986 [11] and later, in his signature work, began to employ computer viruses. These “collaborations” with viral systems positioned his work as an early contribution to what is increasingly referred to as a post-human aesthetic.[12][13]

From 1991–1993 he was artist-in-residence at the Louis Pasteur Atelier in Arbois, France and at the Saline Royale/Ledoux Foundation’s computer lab. There he worked on The Computer Virus Project, which was an artistic experiment with computer viruses and computer animation.[14] He exhibited at Documenta 8 in 1987.[15][16]

In 1999 Nechvatal obtained his Ph.D. in the philosophy of art and new technology concerning immersive virtual reality at Roy Ascott’s Centre for Advanced Inquiry in the Interactive Arts (CAiiA), University of Wales College, Newport, UK (now the Planetary Collegium at the University of Plymouth). There he developed his concept of viractualism, a conceptual art idea that strives “to create an interface between the biological and the technological.”[17] According to Nechvatal, this is a new topological space.[18]

In 2002 he extended his experimentation into viral artificial life through a collaboration with the programmer Stephane Sikora of music2eye in a work called the Computer Virus Project II,[19] inspired by the a-life work of John Horton Conway (particularly Conway’s Game of Life), by the general cellular automata work of John von Neumann, by the genetic programming algorithms of John Koza and the auto-destructive art of Gustav Metzger.[20]

In 2005 he exhibited Computer Virus Project II works (digital paintings, digital prints, a digital audio installation and two live electronic virus-attack art installations)[21] in a solo show called cOntaminatiOns at Château de Linardié in Senouillac, France. In 2006 Nechvatal received a retrospective exhibition entitled Contaminations at the Butler Institute of American Art’s Beecher Center for Arts and Technology.[4]

Dr. Nechvatal has also contributed to digital audio work with his noise music viral symphOny [emphasis mine], a collaborative sound symphony created by using his computer virus software at the Institute for Electronic Arts at Alfred University.[22][23] viral symphOny was presented as a part of nOise anusmOs in New York in 2012.[24]

Here’s a link to the complete viral symphOny with his website here and his blog here.

ETA April 7, 2020 at 1135 PT: Joseph Nechvatal’s book review of Gustav Metzger’s collected writings (1953–2016) has just (April 2020) dropped at The Brooklyn Rail here:  https://brooklynrail.org/2020/04/art_books/Gustav-Metzgers-Writings.

Interstellar buckyball mystery solved

Caption: An artist’s conception showing spherical carbon molecules known as buckyballs coming out from a planetary nebula — material shed by a dying star. Researchers at the University of Arizona have now created these molecules under laboratory conditions thought to mimic those in their ‘natural’ habitat in space. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

A ‘buckyball’, for anyone who doesn’t know, is a molecule made up of carbon atoms, Said to resemble soccer balls or geodesic domes, they’re also known as C60 or Buckminsterfullerenes as Rachel Abraham notes in her November 13, 2019 University of Arizona news release (also on EurekAlert),

Scientists have long been puzzled by the existence of so-called “buckyballs” – complex carbon molecules with a soccer-ball-like structure – throughout interstellar space. Now, a team of researchers from the University of Arizona has proposed a mechanism for their formation in a study published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Carbon 60, or C60 for short, whose official name is Buckminsterfullerene, comes in spherical molecules consisting of 60 carbon atoms organized in five-membered and six-membered rings. The name “buckyball” derives from their resemblance to the architectural work of Richard Buckminster Fuller [bettr known as Buckminster Fuller], who designed many dome structures that look similar to C60. Their formation was thought to only be possible in lab settings until their detection in space challenged this assumption.

For decades, people thought interstellar space was sprinkled with lightweight molecules only: mostly single atoms, two-atom molecules and the occasional nine or 10-atom molecules. This was until massive C60 and C70 molecules were detected a few years ago.

Researchers were also surprised to find that that they were composed of pure carbon. In the lab, C60 is made by blasting together pure carbon sources, such as graphite. In space, C60 was detected in planetary nebulae, which are the debris of dying stars. This environment has about 10,000 hydrogen molecules for every carbon molecule.

“Any hydrogen should destroy fullerene synthesis,” said astrobiology and chemistry doctoral student Jacob Bernal, lead author of the paper. “If you have a box of balls, and for every 10,000 hydrogen balls you have one carbon, and you keep shaking them, how likely is it that you get 60 carbons to stick together? It’s very unlikely.”

Bernal and his co-authors began investigating the C60 mechanism after realizing that the transmission electron microscope, or TEM, housed at the Kuiper Materials Imaging and Characterization Facility at UArizona, was able to simulate the planetary nebula environment fairly well.

The TEM, which is funded by the National Science Foundation and NASA, has a serial number of “1” because it is the first of its kind in the world with its exact configuration. Its 200,000-volt electron beam can probe matter down to 78 picometers – scales too small for the human brain to comprehend – in order to see individual atoms. It operates under a vacuum with extremely low pressures. This pressure, or lack thereof, in the TEM is very close to the pressure in circumstellar environments.

“It’s not that we necessarily tailored the instrument to have these specific kinds of pressures,” said Tom Zega, associate professor in the UArizona Lunar and Planetary Lab and study co-author. “These instruments operate at those kinds of very low pressures not because we want them to be like stars, but because molecules of the atmosphere get in the way when you’re trying to do high-resolution imaging with electron microscopes.”

The team partnered with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Lab, near Chicago, which has a TEM capable of studying radiation responses of materials. They placed silicon carbide, a common form of dust made in stars, in the low-pressure environment of the TEM, subjected it to temperatures up to 1,830 degrees Fahrenheit and irradiated it with high-energy xenon ions.

Then, it was brought back to Tucson for researchers to utilize the higher resolution and better analytical capabilities of the UArizona TEM. They knew their hypothesis would be validated if they observed the silicon shedding and exposing pure carbon.

“Sure enough, the silicon came off, and you were left with layers of carbon in six-membered ring sets called graphite,” said co-author Lucy Ziurys, Regents Professor of astronomy, chemistry and biochemistry. “And then when the grains had an uneven surface, five-membered and six-membered rings formed and made spherical structures matching the diameter of C60. So, we think we’re seeing C60.”

This work suggests that C60 is derived from the silicon carbide dust made by dying stars, which is then hit by high temperatures, shockwaves and high energy particles , leeching silicon from the surface and leaving carbon behind. These big molecules are dispersed because dying stars eject their material into the interstellar medium – the spaces in between stars – thus accounting for their presence outside of planetary nebulae. Buckyballs are very stable to radiation, allowing them to survive for billions of years if shielded from the harsh environment of space.

“The conditions in the universe where we would expect complex things to be destroyed are actually the conditions that create them,” Bernal said, adding that the implications of the findings are endless.

“If this mechanism is forming C60, it’s probably forming all kinds of carbon nanostructures,” Ziurys said. “And if you read the chemical literature, these are all thought to be synthetic materials only made in the lab, and yet, interstellar space seems to be making them naturally.”

If the findings are any sign, it appears that there is more the universe has to tell us about how chemistry truly works.

I have two links and citations. This first is for the 2019 paper being described here and the second is the original 1985 paper about C60.

Formation of Interstellar C60 from Silicon Carbide Circumstellar Grains by J. J. Bernal, P. Haenecour, J. Howe, T. J. Zega, S. Amari, and L. M. Ziurys. The Astrophysical Journal Letters, Volume 883, Number 2 Published 2019 October 1 © 2019. The American Astronomical Society. All rights reserved.

This paper is behind a paywall.

C60: Buckminsterfullerene by H. W. Kroto, J. R. Heath, S. C. O’Brien, R. F. Curl & R. E. Smalley. Nature volume 318, pages162–163 (1985) doi:10.1038/318162a0

This paper is open access.

Increased food security with hexanal for younger looking, fresher tasting fruits and vegetables

Also known as an anti-aging agent for your fruit and vegetables, hexanal is an environmentally friendly chemical, which is found naturally. Research has led to a synthesized nanotechnology-enabled product now being commercialized. I’ve been following the story off and on since 2012 (see my ‘India, Sri Lanka, and Canada team up for nanotechnology-enabled food packaging‘ posting). I last wrote about the project in a December 29, 2015 posting.

For some reason, hexanal hit the news hard in 2019 having been preceded by some interest in 2018. What follows is an update and a timeline of sorts.

January 2019: More funding

A January 24,2019 essay (also published on the University of Guelph website on January 29, 2019) by Jayasankar Subramanian and Elizabeth Finnis, both are lead researchers on the the project and professors at the University of Guelph (Canada), provides an overview and an update of the hexanal project (Note: Links have been removed) ,

Fruits like mangoes, bananas, papayas and limes are shipped long distances before they get to your table. Many fruits are delicate, and there may be a long period of time that elapses between when the fruit is picked and its arrival in grocery stores and other markets. They’re often picked before they’re truly ripe in order to increase their shelf life.

Even so, globally, up to 40 per cent of all picked fruit can be lost and this represents billions of dollars. But what if we had the technology to delay fruit’s natural degradation process? This is where hexanal can make a difference.

Fruits like mangoes, bananas, papayas and limes are shipped long distances before they get to your table. Many fruits are delicate, and there may be a long period of time that elapses between when the fruit is picked and its arrival in grocery stores and other markets. They’re often picked before they’re truly ripe in order to increase their shelf life.

Even so, globally, up to 40 per cent of all picked fruit can be lost and this represents billions of dollars. But what if we had the technology to delay fruit’s natural degradation process? This is where hexanal can make a difference.

Hexanal is naturally produced by plants to ward off pests; our research at the University of Guelph has found that when it’s applied externally, hexanal can also slow down the aging process.

Like everything else, fruit ages with time. The shrivelling and rot is triggered by the enzyme phospholipase D (PLD), which causes the eventual collapse of the fruit’s membrane. Essentially, fruit membranes are snug, and function like a brick wall of phospholipid bilayers. Phospholipase D breaks the alignment of the bricks, causing the membrane to crumble. Hexanal acts by reducing and slowing the formation of PLD, which in turn slows the collapse of the fruit’s membrane.

In partnership with agricultural and social science researchers in Canada and five other countries, we have tested nine hexanal technologies. These include a spray formulation that gets applied to fruit when they’re still on trees, post-harvest dips, fruit wraps, stickers and sachets embedded with hexanal.

Our findings have implications for consumers, retailers and, more importantly, farmers. For example, when applied as a pre-harvest spray, hexanal can keep fruit on trees longer and keep it fresher after harvest — up to three weeks longer for mangoes.

Hexanal is naturally produced by all plants and is already found as an additive in some food products. Hexanal is also approved by Health Canada as a flavour formula. Our tests of synthesized hexanal sprays, dips and other technologies showed that there were no negative effects on plants, insects or other animals. In addition, hexanal evaporates within 24 hours, which means there’s no residue left on fruit.

Farmers who participated in hexanal testing in Canada and elsewhere were happy with the product both in terms of its effectiveness and bio-safety.

Currently, hexanal for agricultural use is in the two-year regulatory clearance process in Canada and the U.S. Once the process is complete, hexanal formulations are expected to be available for farmer use and can be accessed through companies with a license for production.

Hexanal slows down the ripening and aging process in fresh produce. Author provided

That’s a stunning difference, eh?

Funding

At about the same time as the Conversation essay by Subramanian and Finnis, the University of Guelph published (on the Council of Ontario Universities website) a January 27, 2019 news release announcing new funds for the project,

A University of Guelph research project that has already improved the livelihoods of small-scale Asian farmers will further expand worldwide, thanks to more than $4.2 million in federal support announced Friday afternoon.

The project involves innovative packaging developed in part by Guelph researchers using nanotechnology to improve the shelf life of mangoes, a major fruit crop in much of the world.

Already, the technology has helped to significantly reduce post-harvest losses in Sri Lanka and India. Poor storage meant that farmers routinely lost up to 40 per cent of their crops, worth upwards of $800 million a year. The new technology has also boosted per-acre revenue.

New funding support from the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) and Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada will allow researchers to broaden this successful initiative to Kenya, Tanzania, and Trinidad and Tobago.

Researchers will also look at other fruit — bananas, grapes, papaya, nectarines and berries — and investigate ways to commercialize the technologies.

… it will also be a main pillar of the Guelph-East Africa Initiative, which U of G established to bring together stakeholders to support research and teaching in food, health, water, education, environment and community.

“This confirms our commitment to improve agriculture in East Africa and around the world.” [said John Livernois, interim vice-president {research} ]

The project involves the use of hexanal, a natural plant product that delays fruit ripening and aging. Guelph plant agriculture professor Gopi Paliyath holds an American patent on the discovery of hexanal as a post-harvest agent. It’s also an FDA-approved food additive.

The project also involves Guelph plant agriculture professors Paliyath and Al Sullivan; Loong-tak Lim from Food Science; and Elizabeth Finnis, Sociology and Anthropology. Foreign research partners are based at Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, India; Industrial Technical Institute, Sri Lanka; University of Nairobi, Kenya; Sokoine University of Agriculture, Tanzania; and the University of [the] West Indies, Trinidad and Tobago.

Prior to more funding: a memorandum of understanding

I’m having to guess as the document about the memorandum of understanding (MOU) to commercialize hexanal is not dated but it seems to have been produced in March 2018. (Canada’s International Development Research Centre ([IDRC] has a webpage about the memorandum but no memorandum that I could find.) I stumbled across this account of the event where the MOU was signed,

Ms. Jennifer Daubeny, Consulate General of Canada, delivered the special address narrating the significance of Canadian fundingin developing nanotechnologies to reduce post-harvest losses that enables food security in Asian Countries. Dr. K. Ramasamy, Vice Chancellor, Tamil Nadu Agricultural University [TNAU], Coimbatore presided over the function and highlighted the role of TNAU in knitting nanotechnology research framework and serving as a torch bearer in the country. He emphasized that the GAC-IDRC Project helped more than 60 students and researchers, developed two technologies, filed patents for two inventions, extensive infrastructure development besides helping more than 12,000 fruit growers in the State of Tamil Nadu. Dr. Jayasankar Subramanian, Professor, University of Guelph, Canada, explained the evolution of the project till reached the stage of technology delivery to benefit farmers. Dr. K.S. Subramanian, NABARD Chair Professor, TNAU, Coimbatore, lead Principal Investigator of the Project for India presented nanotechnologies developed to assist in the entire value chain from the farm to fork. Mr. Arun Nagarajan, President, Tamil Nadu Fruit Growers’ Association, explained that the fruit growers are eager to use the technology to improve their farm income. Mr. Terence Park, Managing Director, Smart Harvest Agri, Canada, [emphasis mine] bestowed interest to take forward the technologies to the farm gate and signed MOU with TNAU for the Commercialization of the Hexanal Formulation. Dr. G.J. Janavi,Professor & Head, Department of Nano Science & Technology, TNAU, Coimbatore welcomed the gathering and Dr. C. Sekar, Dean, Imayam Agricultural College,Turaiyur, and Co-PI of the Project proposed a formal vote of thanks.

The Canadian Consul General Ms. Jennifer Daubeny visited all the exhibits and interacted with students, scholars and researchers besides the NGO partner Myrada. She was very impressed with the technologies developed by TNAU in collaboration with University of Guelph, Canada, and looking forward to support research programs in the near future. More than 200 Scientists and Diplomats from Canada, students, scholars, university officials participated in the event.

Products launch by ITI, Colombo

Two of the project’s technology outputs -hexanal incorporated ITI Bio-wax and the Tree Fresh Formulation spray [emphasis mine] were transferred to Hayleys Agriculture Pvt. Ltd., a reputed Agro Service provider in Sri Lanka. The products were launched on 22ndMarch 2018 at the Taj Samudra Hotel, Colombo. The chief guest at the event was the Hon. Susil Premajayantha, Minister of Science Technology and Research (Min. ST&R). The guest of honour was H.E. David McKinnon, High Commissioner for Canada in Sri Lanka. Others present included the Secretary to the Min. ST&R, The Chairman and Director General, ITI, Mr Rizvi Zaheed, Hayleys Agriculture and his team, the Chairman, National Science Foundation, Sri Lanka, representative of the Chairman Sri Lanka Export Development Board, representatives from the Dialog mobile service provider, the Registrar of Pesticides, representing the Dir. Gen., of Agriculture, President of the Lanka Fruit and Vegetable Producers, Processors and Exporters Association, leading large scale mango, papaya and pineapple growers, several export and fruit processing company representatives, senior officials from the ITI, the multi-disciplinary ITI research team and our partner from CEPA. The press was also well represented and a total of 100 persons were present on this occasion. The Managing Director Hayles, the two PIs’ of the project, the High Commissioner for Canada, The Minister and for ST&R and the Secretary to the Ministry addressed the gathering and the new video clip on the project was viewed. The new products were jointly uncovered for display by the Hon. Minister and H.E., the High Commissioner. Samples of the products were distributed to the President of the Lanka Fruit and Vegetable Producers Processors and Exporters Association and to two leading mango growers. The Project team also took this opportunity to run a presentation on the various stages of the project and related activities, display posters on their research findings and to print and distribute the pamphlets on the same as well as on hexanal, the latter as prepared by our partners from the University of Guelph. The launch ended with a time of fellowship providing a useful opportunity for networking.

A YouTube video about the product launch of hexanal-based Bio-wax and the Tree Fresh Formulation spray (I don’t know if those were the permanent names or if they are specific to Sri Lanka and other countries will adopt other names) helped to establish the date for the MOU. You can find the video here.

Judging from the media stories, the team in India has provided most of the leadership for commercializing hexanal.

Commercialization 2019 and beyond

To sum up, after a memorandum of understanding is signed and some prototype products have been unveiled in India in 2018 then, in early 2019, there’s more funding announced by IDRC to expand the number of countries involved and to continue research into efforts to save other types of produce.

Moving things along is an August 15, 2019 news item on Agropages.com,

Two nano formulations would be commercialized by the Directorate of Agri business development of Tamil Nadu Agricultural University (TNAU) soon.  

Fruity fresh is a liquid nano formulation containing hexanal that keeps fruits and vegetables fresh for more days. The pre-harvest spray of Fruity Fresh extends the shelf life of mango for two weeks on trees and another two weeks under storage conditions by employing post-harvest dip methodology, Dr. A. Lakshmanan, Professor and Head, Department of Nano Science and Technology told a meet on “Linking Nano Stakeholders” held at the University.  

Hexanal has also been successfully encapsulated in polymer matrix either as an electro spun fibre matrix (Nano sticker) or nano-pellets that extends shelf life of fruits by 1-2 weeks during storage and transportation, he said.  

This sticker and pellets technology is highly user friendly and can be placed inside the cartons containing fruits during transport for enhancing the freshness.

According to a November 5, 2019 article by Pearly Neo for foodnavigator-asia.com, there is pricing for four products. Nano Sticker and Nano Pellet each will cost $US 0.028 and the spray, Fruity Fresh, will cost $US 4.23 to $US 5.65 for a one liter bottle diluted in 50 liters of water (for use on approximately five trees) and the Fruity Fresh dipping solution at $US 0.0071per kg.

As far as I’m aware none of these products are available in Canada but there is a website for Smart Harvest Agri, Canada although the name used is a little different. First, there’s the Federal Corporation Information listing for Smart Harvest Agritech Limited. You’ll notice there are two directors,

Amanjit Singh Bains
7685 150B Street
Surrey BC V3S 5P1
Canada

Terence Park
Yongsan CJ Nine Park
Seoul
Korea, Republic of

The company’s Smart Harvest website doesn’t list any products but it does discuss something they call “FRESHXtend technology” for fruits and vegetables.

Final comment

I sometimes hear complaints about government funding and what seems to be a lack of follow through with exciting research work being done in Canada. I hope that in the months to come that this story of an international collaboration, which started with three countries and has now expanded to at least six countries and has led to increased food security with an environmentally friendly material and commercialization of research, gets some attention.

From the few sources I’ve been able to find, it seems India and Sri Lanka are leading the commercialization charge while Canada has contributed to an Asian-led project which has now expanded to include Kenya, Tanzania, and Trinidad and Tobago. Bravo t them all!

Purifying carbon nanotubes with dietary fiber

This work comes out of Japan according to a November 2, 2019 news item on Nanowerk,

A new, cheaper method easily and effectively separates two types of carbon nanotubes. The process, developed by Nagoya University researchers in Japan, could be up-scaled for manufacturing purified batches of single-wall carbon nanotubes that can be used in high-performance electronic devices.

Single-wall carbon nanotubes (SWCNTs) have excellent electronic and mechanical properties, making them ideal candidates for use in a wide range of electronic devices, including the thin-film transistors found in LCD displays. A problem is that only two-thirds of manufactured SWCNTs are suitable for use in electronic devices. The useful semiconducting SWCNTs must be separated from the unwanted metallic ones. But the most powerful purification process, known as aqueous two-phase extraction, currently involves the use of a costly polysaccharide, called dextran.

Caption: The unwanted metallic SWCNTs deposited at the bottom of the solution, while the wanted semiconducting ones floated to the top. Credit: Haruka Omachi

An October 29, 2019 Nagoya University press release (also on EurekAlert but dated Nov. 2, 2019), which originated the news item, describes how dextran could be replaced with something much cheaper in the SWCNT purification process,

Organic chemist Haruka Omachi and colleagues at Nagoya University hypothesized that dextran’s effectiveness in separating semiconducting from metallic SWCNTs lies in the linkages connecting its glucose units. Instead of using dextran to separate the two types of SWCNTs, the team tried the significantly cheaper isomaltodextran, which has many more of these linkages.

A batch of SWCNTs was left for 15 minutes in a solution containing polyethylene glycol and isomaltodextrin and then centrifuged for five minutes. Three different types of isomaltodextrin were tried, each with a different number of linkages and a different molecular weight. The team found that metallic SWCNTs separated to the bottom isomaltodextrin part of the solution, while the semiconducting SWCNTs floated to the top polyethylene glycol part.

The type of isomaltodextrin with high molecular weight and the most linkages was the most (99%) effective in separating the two types of SWCNTs. The team also found that another polysaccharide, called pullulan, whose glucose units are connected with different kinds of linkages, was ineffective in separating the two types of SWCNTs. The researchers suggest that the number and type of linkages present in isomaltodextrin play an important role in their ability to effectively separate the carbon nanotubes.

The team also found that a thin-film transistor made with their purified semiconducting SWCNTs performed very well.

Isomaltodextrin is a cheap and widely available polysaccharide produced from starch that is used as a dietary fibre. This makes it a cost-effective alternative for the SWCNT extraction process. Omachi and his colleagues are currently in discussions with companies to commercialize their approach. They are also working on improving the performance of thin-film transistors using semiconducting SWCNTs in flexible displays and sensor devices.

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

Aqueous two-phase extraction of semiconducting single-wall carbon nanotubes with isomaltodextrin and thin-film transistor applications by Haruka Omachi, Tomohiko Komuro, Kaisei Matsumoto, Minako Nakajima, Hikaru Watanabe, Jun Hirotani, Yutaka Ohno, and Hisanori Shinohara. Applied Physics Express, Volume 12, Number 9 DOI: https://doi.org/10.7567/1882-0786/ab369 Published 14 August 2019 • © 2019 The Japan Society of Applied Physics

This paper is open access.

Double-walled carbon nanotubes have superior electrical properties?

A March 27, 2020 news item on Nanowerk suggests that double-walled carbon nanotubes (DWCNTs) may offer some advantages over single-walled carbon nanotubes (SWCNTs), NOTE: A link has been removed,

One nanotube could be great for electronics applications, but there’s new evidence that two could be tops.

Rice University engineers already knew that size matters when using single-walled carbon nanotubes for their electrical properties. But until now, nobody had studied how electrons act when confronted with the Russian doll-like structure of multiwalled tubes.

There’s a diagram representing the work,

Caption: Rice University theorists have calculated flexoelectric effects in double-walled carbon nanotubes. The electrical potential (P) of atoms on either side of a graphene sheet (top) are identical, but not when the sheet is curved into a nanotube. Double-walled nanotubes (bottom) show unique effects as band gaps in inner and outer tubes are staggered. Credit: Yakobson Research Group/Rice University

A March 27, 2020 Rice University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, delves further (NOTE: Links have been removed),

The Rice lab of materials theorist Boris Yakobson has now calculated the impact of curvature of semiconducting double-wall carbon nanotubes on their flexoelectric voltage, a measure of electrical imbalance between the nanotube’s inner and outer walls.

This affects how suitable nested nanotube pairs may be for nanoelectronics applications, especially photovoltaics.

The theoretical research by Yakobson’s Brown School of Engineering group appears in the American Chemical Society journal Nano Letters.

In an 2002 study, Yakobson and his Rice colleagues had revealed how charge transfer, the difference between positive and negative poles that allows voltage to exist between one and the other, scales linearly to the curvature of the nanotube wall. The width of the tube dictates curvature, and the lab found that the thinner the nanotube (and thus larger the curvature), the greater the potential voltage.

When carbon atoms form flat graphene, the charge density of the atoms on either side of the plane are identical, Yakobson said. Curving the graphene sheet into a tube breaks that symmetry, changing the balance.

That creates a flexoelectric local dipole in the direction of, and proportional to, the curvature, according to the researchers, who noted that the flexoelectricity of 2D carbon “is a remarkable but also fairly subtle effect.”

But more than one wall greatly complicates the balance, altering the distribution of electrons. In double-walled nanotubes, the curvature of the inner and outer tubes differ, giving each a distinct band gap. Additionally, the models showed the flexoelectric voltage of the outer wall shifts the band gap of the inner wall, creating a staggered band alignment in the nested system.

“The novelty is that the inserted tube, the ‘baby’ (inside) matryoshka has all of its quantum energy levels shifted because of the voltage created by exterior nanotube,” Yakobson said. The interplay of different curvatures, he said, causes a straddling-to-staggered band gap transition that takes place at an estimated critical diameter of about 2.4 nanometers.

“This is a huge advantage for solar cells, essentially a prerequisite for separating positive and negative charges to create a current,” Yakobson said. “When light is absorbed, an electron always jumps from the top of an occupied valence band (leaving a ‘plus’ hole behind) to the lowest state of empty conductance band.

“But in a staggered configuration they happen to be in different tubes, or layers,” he said. “The ‘plus’ and ‘minus’ get separated between the tubes and can flow away by generating current in a circuit.”

The team’s calculations also showed that modifying the nanotubes’ surfaces with either positive or negative atoms could create “substantial voltages of either sign” up to three volts. “Although functionalization could strongly perturb the electronic properties of nanotubes, it may be a very powerful way of inducing voltage for certain applications,” the researchers wrote.

The team suggested its findings may apply to other types of nanotubes, including boron nitride and molybdenum disulfide, on their own or as hybrids with carbon nanotubes.

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

Flexoelectricity and charge separation in carbon nanotubes by Vasilii I. Artyukhov, Sunny Gupta, Alex Kutana, Boris I. Yakobson. Nano Lett. 2020, XXXX, XXX, XXX-XXX DOI: https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.nanolett.9b05345 [Online] Publication Date:March 10, 2020 Copyright © 2020 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Slippery toilet coating could save water

On a practical level, it’s becoming clear that we need to become more thoughtful about our use of water. We here in Canada tend to take our water for granted, as if we have an inexhaustible supply. According to this August 21, 2008 CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) online news item, that’s not the case,

Canada’s stores of fresh water are not as plentiful as once thought, and threaten to pinch the economy and pit provinces against each other, a federal document says.

An internal report drafted last December [2007] by Environment Canada warns that climate change and a growing population will further drain resources.

“We can no longer take our extensive water supplies for granted,” says the report, titled A Federal Perspective on Water Quantity Issues.

The Canadian Press obtained the 21-page draft report under the Access to Information Act.

It suggests the federal government take a more hands-on role in managing the country’s water, which is now largely done by the provinces. Ottawa still manages most of the fresh water in the North through water boards.

The Conservatives promised a national water strategy in last fall’s throne speech but have been criticized since for announcing only piecemeal projects.

The Tories, like the previous Liberal government, are also behind in publishing annual reports required by law that show how water supplies are used and maintained.

The last assessment posted on Environment Canada’s website is from 2005-06.

The internal draft report says the government currently does not know enough about the country’s water to properly manage it.

‘This is not a crisis yet. Why would we expect any government, regardless of political leaning or level, to do anything about it?’

“Canada lacks sound information at a national scale on the major uses and user[s] of water,” it says.

“National forecasting of water availability has never been done because traditionally our use of the resource was thought to be unlimited.”

Canada has a fifth of the world’s supply of fresh water, but only seven per cent of it is renewable. The rest comes from ice-age glaciers and underground aquifers.

One per cent of Canada’s total water supply is renewed each year by precipitation, the report says.

Moreover, government data on the country’s groundwater reserves is deemed “sparse and often inadequate.”

That’s in contrast to the United States, which has spent more than a decade mapping its underground water reserves. Canada shares aquifers with the U.S., and the report says: “Our lack of data places Canada at strategic disadvantage for bilateral negotiations with the U.S.”

The most recent update I can find is Ivan Semeniuk’s June 11, 2017 article for the Globe and Mail tilted: Charting Canada’s troubled waters: Where the danger lies for watersheds across the country,

A comprehensive review [World Wildlife Federation: a national assessment of of Canada’s freshwater Watershed Reports; 2017] freshwater ecosystems reveals rising threats from pollution, overuse, invasive species and climate change among other problems. Yet, the biggest threat of all may be a lack of information that hinders effective regulation, Ivan Semeniuk reports. …

Some of that information may be out of date.

Getting back on topic, here’s one possible solution to better managing our use of water.

Toilet coating

A November 18, 2019 news item on phys.org announces research that could save water,

Every day, more than 141 billion liters of water are used solely to flush toilets. With millions of global citizens experiencing water scarcity, what if that amount could be reduced by 50%?

The possibility may exist through research conducted at Penn State, released today (Nov. 18) in Nature Sustainability.

“Our team has developed a robust bio-inspired, liquid, sludge- and bacteria-repellent coating that can essentially make a toilet self-cleaning,” said Tak-Sing Wong, Wormley Early Career Professor of Engineering and associate professor of mechanical engineering and biomedical engineering.

Penn State researchers have developed a method that dramatically reduces the amount of water needed to flush a conventional toilet, which usually requires 6 liters. Image: Wong Laboratory for Nature Inspired Engineering

A November 18, 2019 Pennsylvania State University news release (also on EurekAlert,) which originated the news item, describes the research in more detail,

In the Wong Laboratory for Nature Inspired Engineering, housed within the Department of Mechanical Engineering and the Materials Research Institute, researchers have developed a method that dramatically reduces the amount of water needed to flush a conventional toilet, which usually requires 6 liters.

Co-developed by Jing Wang, a doctoral graduate from Wong’s lab, the liquid-entrenched smooth surface (LESS) coating is a two-step spray that, among other applications, can be applied to a ceramic toilet bowl. The first spray, created from molecularly grafted polymers, is the initial step in building an extremely smooth and liquid-repellent foundation.

“When it dries, the first spray grows molecules that look like little hairs, with a diameter of about 1,000,000 times thinner than a human’s,” Wang said.

While this first application creates an extremely smooth surface as is, the second spray infuses a thin layer of lubricant around those nanoscopic “hairs” to create a super-slippery surface.

“When we put that coating on a toilet in the lab and dump synthetic fecal matter on it, it (the synthetic fecal matter) just completely slides down and nothing sticks to it (the toilet),” Wang said.

With this novel slippery surface, the toilets can effectively clean residue from inside the bowl and dispose of the waste with only a fraction of the water previously needed. The researchers also predict the coating could last for about 500 flushes in a conventional toilet before a reapplication of the lubricant layer is needed.

While other liquid-infused slippery surfaces can take hours to cure, the LESS two-step coating takes less than five minutes. The researcher’s experiments also found the surface effectively repelled bacteria, particularly ones that spread infectious diseases and unpleasant odors.

If it were widely adopted in the United States, it could direct critical resources toward other important activities, to drought-stricken areas or to regions experiencing chronic water scarcity, said the researchers.

Driven by these humanitarian solutions, the researchers also hope their work can make an impact in the developing world. The technology could be used within waterless toilets, which are used extensively around the world.

“Poop sticking to the toilet is not only unpleasant to users, but it also presents serious health concerns,” Wong said.

However, if a waterless toilet or urinal used the LESS coating, the team predicts these types of fixtures would be more appealing and safer for widespread use.

To address these issues in both the United States and around the world, Wong and his collaborators, Wang, Birgitt Boschitsch, and Nan Sun, all mechanical engineering alumni, began a start-up venture.

With support from the Ben Franklin Technology Partners’ TechCelerator, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, the Office of Naval Research, the Rice Business Plan Competition and Y-Combinator, their company, spotLESS Materials, is already bringing the LESS coating to market.

“Our goal is to bring impactful technology to the market so everyone can benefit,” Wong said. “To maximize the impact of our coating technology, we need to get it out of the lab.”

Looking forward, the team hopes spotLESS Materials will play a role in sustaining the world’s water resources and continue expanding the reach of their technology.

“As a researcher in an academic setting, my goal is to invent things that everyone can benefit from,” Wong said. “As a Penn Stater, I see this culture being amplified through entrepreneurship, and I’m excited to contribute.”

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

Viscoelastic solid-repellent coatings for extreme water saving and global sanitation by Jing Wang, Lin Wang, Nan Sun, Ross Tierney, Hui Li, Margo Corsetti, Leon Williams, Pak Kin Wong & Tak-Sing Wong. Nature Sustainability (2019) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-019-0421-0 Published 18 November 2019

This paper is behind a paywall. However, the researchers have made a brief video available,

There you have it. One random thought, that toilet image reminded me of the controversy over Marcel Duchamp, the Fountain, and who actually submitted a urinal for consideration as a piece of art (Jan. 23, 2019 posting). Hint: Some believe it was Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven.

Are nano electronics as good as gold?

“As good as gold” was a behavioural goal when I was a child. It turns out, the same can be said of gold in electronic devices according to the headline for a March 26, 2020 news item on Nanowerk (Note: Links have been removed),

As electronics shrink to nanoscale, will they still be good as gold?

Deep inside computer chips, tiny wires made of gold and other conductive metals carry the electricity used to process data.

But as these interconnected circuits shrink to nanoscale, engineers worry that pressure, such as that caused by thermal expansion when current flows through these wires, might cause gold to behave more like a liquid than a solid, making nanoelectronics unreliable. That, in turn, could force chip designers to hunt for new materials to make these critical wires.

But according to a new paper in Physical Review Letters (“Nucleation of Dislocations in 3.9 nm Nanocrystals at High Pressure”), chip designers can rest easy. “Gold still behaves like a solid at these small scales,” says Stanford mechanical engineer Wendy Gu, who led a team that figured out how to pressurize gold particles just 4 nanometers in length — the smallest particles ever measured — to assess whether current flows might cause the metal’s atomic structure to collapse.

I have seen the issue about gold as a metal or liquid before but I can’t find it here (search engines, sigh). However, I found this somewhat related story from almost five years ago. In my April 14, 2015 posting (Gold atoms: sometimes they’re a metal and sometimes they’re a molecule), there was news that the number of gold atoms present means the difference between being a metal and being a molecule .This could have implications as circuit elements (which include some gold in their fabrication) shrink down past a certain point.

A March 24, 2020 Stanford University news release (also on Eurekalert but published on March 25, 2020) by Andrew Myers, which originated the news item, provides details about research designed to investigate a similar question, i.e, can we used gold as we shrink the scale?*,

To conduct the experiment, Gu’s team first had to devise a way put tiny gold particles under extreme pressure, while simultaneously measuring how much that pressure damaged gold’s atomic structure.

To solve the first problem, they turned to the field of high-pressure physics to borrow a device known as a diamond anvil cell. As the name implies, both hammer and anvil are diamonds that are used to compress the gold. As Gu explained, a nanoparticle of gold is built like a skyscraper with atoms forming a crystalline lattice of neat rows and columns. She knew that pressure from the anvil would dislodge some atoms from the crystal and create tiny defects in the gold.

The next challenge was to detect these defects in nanoscale gold. The scientists shined X-rays through the diamond onto the gold. Defects in the crystal caused the X-rays to reflect at different angles than they would on uncompressed gold. By measuring variations in the angles at which the X-rays bounced off the particles before and after pressure was applied, the team was able to tell whether the particles retained the deformations or reverted to their original state when pressure was lifted.

In practical terms, her findings mean that chipmakers can know with certainty that they’ll be able to design stable nanodevices using gold — a material they have known and trusted for decades — for years to come.

“For the foreseeable future, gold’s luster will not fade,” Gu says.

*The 2015 research measured the gold nanoclusters by the number of atoms within the cluster with the changes occurring at some where between 102 atoms and 144 atoms. This 2020 work measures the amount of gold by nanometers as in 3.9 nm gold nanocrystals . So, how many gold atoms in a nanometer? Cathy Murphy provides the answer and the way to calculate it for yourself in a July 26, 2016 posting on the Sustainable Nano blog ( a blog by the Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology),

Two years ago, I wrote a blog post called Two Ways to Make Nanoparticles, describing the difference between top-down and bottom-up methods for making nanoparticles. In the post I commented, “we can estimate, knowing how gold atoms pack into crystals, that there are about 2000 gold atoms in one 4 nm diameter gold nanoparticle.” Recently, a Sustainable Nano reader wrote in to ask about how this calculation is done. It’s a great question!

So, a 3.9 nm gold nanocrystal contains approximately 2000 gold atoms. (If you have time, do read Murphy’s description of how to determine the number of gold atoms in a gold nanoparticle.) So, this research does not answer the question posed by the 2015 research.

It may take years before researchers can devise tests for gold nanoclusters consisting of 102 atoms as opposed to nanoparticles consisting of 2000 atoms. In the meantime, here’s a link to and a citation for the latest on how gold reacts as we shrink the size of our electronics,

Nucleation of Dislocations in 3.9 nm Nanocrystals at High Pressure by Abhinav Parakh, Sangryun Lee, K. Anika Harkins, Mehrdad T. Kiani, David Doan, Martin Kunz, Andrew Doran, Lindsey A. Hanson, Seunghwa Ryu, and X. Wendy Gu. Phys. Rev. Lett. 124, 106104 DOI:https://doi.org/10.1103/PhysRevLett.124.106104 Published 13 March 2020 © 2020 American Physical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Some amusements in the time of COVID-19

Gold stars for everyone who recognized the loose paraphrasing of the title, Love in the Time of Cholera, for Gabrial Garcia Marquez’s 1985 novel.

I wrote my headline and first paragraph yesterday and found this in my email box this morning, from a March 25, 2020 University of British Columbia news release, which compares times, diseases, and scares of the past with today’s COVID-19 (Perhaps politicians and others could read this piece and stop using the word ‘unprecedented’ when discussing COVID-19?),

How globalization stoked fear of disease during the Romantic era

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the word “communication” had several meanings. People used it to talk about both media and the spread of disease, as we do today, but also to describe transport—via carriages, canals and shipping.

Miranda Burgess, an associate professor in UBC’s English department, is working on a book called Romantic Transport that covers these forms of communication in the Romantic era and invites some interesting comparisons to what the world is going through today.

We spoke with her about the project.

What is your book about?

It’s about global infrastructure at the dawn of globalization—in particular the extension of ocean navigation through man-made inland waterways like canals and ship’s canals. These canals of the late 18th and early 19th century were like today’s airline routes, in that they brought together places that were formerly understood as far apart, and shrunk time because they made it faster to get from one place to another.

This book is about that history, about the fears that ordinary people felt in response to these modernizations, and about the way early 19th-century poets and novelists expressed and responded to those fears.

What connections did those writers make between transportation and disease?

In the 1810s, they don’t have germ theory yet, so there’s all kinds of speculation about how disease happens. Works of tropical medicine, which is rising as a discipline, liken the human body to the surface of the earth. They talk about nerves as canals that convey information from the surface to the depths, and the idea that somehow disease spreads along those pathways.

When the canals were being built, some writers opposed them on the grounds that they could bring “strangers” through the heart of the city, and that standing water would become a breeding ground for disease. Now we worry about people bringing disease on airplanes. It’s very similar to that.

What was the COVID-19 of that time?

Probably epidemic cholera [emphasis mine], from about the 1820s onward. The Quarterly Review, a journal that novelist Walter Scott was involved in editing, ran long articles that sought to trace the map of cholera along rivers from South Asia, to Southeast Asia, across Europe and finally to Britain. And in the way that its spread is described, many of the same fears that people are evincing now about COVID-19 were visible then, like the fear of clothes. Is it in your clothes? Do we have to burn our clothes? People were concerned.

What other comparisons can be drawn between those times and what is going on now?

Now we worry about the internet and “fake news.” In the 19th century, they worried about what William Wordsworth called “the rapid communication of intelligence,” which was the daily newspaper. Not everybody had access to newspapers, but each newspaper was read by multiple families and newspapers were available in taverns and coffee shops. So if you were male and literate, you had access to a newspaper, and quite a lot of women did, too.

Paper was made out of rags—discarded underwear. Because of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars that followed, France blockaded Britain’s coast and there was a desperate shortage of rags to make paper, which had formerly come from Europe. And so Britain started to import rags from the Caribbean that had been worn by enslaved people.

Papers of the time are full of descriptions of the high cost of rags, how they’re getting their rags from prisons, from prisoners’ underwear, and fear about the kinds of sweat and germs that would have been harboured in those rags—and also discussions of scarcity, as people stole and hoarded those rags. It rings very well with what the internet is telling us now about a bunch of things around COVID-19.

Plus ça change, n’est-ce pas?

And now for something completely different

Kudos to all who recognized the Monty Python reference. Now, onto the frogfish,

Thank you to the Monterey Bay Aquarium (in California, US).

A March 22, 2020 University of Washington (state) news release features an interview with the author of a new book on frogfishes,

Any old fish can swim. But what fish can walk, scoot, clamber over rocks, change color or pattern and even fight? That would be the frogfish.

The latest book by Ted Pietsch, UW professor emeritus of aquatic and fishery sciences, explores the lives and habits of these unusual marine shorefishes. “Frogfishes: Biodiversity, Zoogeography, and Behavioral Ecology” was published in March [2020] by Johns Hopkins University Press.

Pietsch, who is also curator emeritus of fishes at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, has published over 200 articles and a dozen books on the biology and behavior of marine fishes. He wrote this book with Rachel J. Arnold, a faculty member at Northwest Indian College in Bellingham and its Salish Sea Research Center.

These walking fishes have stepped into the spotlight lately, with interest growing in recent decades. And though these predatory fishes “will almost certainly devour anything else that moves in a home aquarium,” Pietsch writes, “a cadre of frogfish aficionados around the world has grown within the dive community and among aquarists.” In fact, Pietsch said, there are three frogfish public groups on Facebook, with more than 6,000 members.

First, what is a frogfish?

Ted Pietsch: A member of a family of bony fishes, containing 52 species, all of which are highly camouflaged and whose feeding strategy consists of mimicking the immobile, inert, and benign appearance of a sponge or an algae-encrusted rock, while wiggling a highly conspicuous lure to attract prey.

This is a fish that “walks” and “hops” across the sea bottom, and clambers about over rocks and coral like a four-legged terrestrial animal but, at the same time, can jet-propel itself through open water. Some lay their eggs encapsulated in a complex, floating, mucus mass, called an “egg raft,” while some employ elaborate forms of parental care, carrying their eggs around until they hatch.

They are among the most colorful of nature’s productions, existing in nearly every imaginable color and color pattern, with an ability to completely alter their color and pattern in a matter of days or seconds. All these attributes combined make them one of the most intriguing groups of aquatic vertebrates for the aquarist, diver, and underwater photographer as well as the professional zoologist.

I couldn’t resist the ‘frog’ reference and I’m glad since this is a good read with a number of fascinating photographs and illustrations.,

An illustration of the frogfish Antennarius pictus, published by George Shaw in 1794. From a new book by Ted Pietsch, UW professor of emeritus of aquatic and fishery sciences. Courtesy: University of Washington (state)

h/t phys.org March 24, 2020 news item

Building with bacteria

A block of sand particles held together by living cells. Credit: The University of Colorado Boulder College of Engineering and Applied Science

A March 24, 2020 news item on phys.org features the future of building construction as perceived by synthetic biologists,

Buildings are not unlike a human body. They have bones and skin; they breathe. Electrified, they consume energy, regulate temperature and generate waste. Buildings are organisms—albeit inanimate ones.

But what if buildings—walls, roofs, floors, windows—were actually alive—grown, maintained and healed by living materials? Imagine architects using genetic tools that encode the architecture of a building right into the DNA of organisms, which then grow buildings that self-repair, interact with their inhabitants and adapt to the environment.

A March 23, 2020 essay by Wil Srubar (Professor of Architectural Engineering and Materials Science, University of Colorado Boulder), which originated the news item, provides more insight,

Living architecture is moving from the realm of science fiction into the laboratory as interdisciplinary teams of researchers turn living cells into microscopic factories. At the University of Colorado Boulder, I lead the Living Materials Laboratory. Together with collaborators in biochemistry, microbiology, materials science and structural engineering, we use synthetic biology toolkits to engineer bacteria to create useful minerals and polymers and form them into living building blocks that could, one day, bring buildings to life.

In one study published in Scientific Reports, my colleagues and I genetically programmed E. coli to create limestone particles with different shapes, sizes, stiffnesses and toughness. In another study, we showed that E. coli can be genetically programmed to produce styrene – the chemical used to make polystyrene foam, commonly known as Styrofoam.

Green cells for green building

In our most recent work, published in Matter, we used photosynthetic cyanobacteria to help us grow a structural building material – and we kept it alive. Similar to algae, cyanobacteria are green microorganisms found throughout the environment but best known for growing on the walls in your fish tank. Instead of emitting CO2, cyanobacteria use CO2 and sunlight to grow and, in the right conditions, create a biocement, which we used to help us bind sand particles together to make a living brick.

By keeping the cyanobacteria alive, we were able to manufacture building materials exponentially. We took one living brick, split it in half and grew two full bricks from the halves. The two full bricks grew into four, and four grew into eight. Instead of creating one brick at a time, we harnessed the exponential growth of bacteria to grow many bricks at once – demonstrating a brand new method of manufacturing materials.

Researchers have only scratched the surface of the potential of engineered living materials. Other organisms could impart other living functions to material building blocks. For example, different bacteria could produce materials that heal themselves, sense and respond to external stimuli like pressure and temperature, or even light up. If nature can do it, living materials can be engineered to do it, too.

It also take less energy to produce living buildings than standard ones. Making and transporting today’s building materials uses a lot of energy and emits a lot of CO2. For example, limestone is burned to make cement for concrete. Metals and sand are mined and melted to make steel and glass. The manufacture, transport and assembly of building materials account for 11% of global CO2 emissions. Cement production alone accounts for 8%. In contrast, some living materials, like our cyanobacteria bricks, could actually sequester CO2.

The field of engineered living materials is in its infancy, and further research and development is needed to bridge the gap between laboratory research and commercial availability. Challenges include cost, testing, certification and scaling up production. Consumer acceptance is another issue. For example, the construction industry has a negative perception of living organisms. Think mold, mildew, spiders, ants and termites. We’re hoping to shift that perception. Researchers working on living materials also need to address concerns about safety and biocontamination.

The [US] National Science Foundation recently named engineered living materials one of the country’s key research priorities. Synthetic biology and engineered living materials will play a critical role in tackling the challenges humans will face in the 2020s and beyond: climate change, disaster resilience, aging and overburdened infrastructure, and space exploration.

If you have time and interest, this is fascinating. Strubar is a little exuberant and, at this point, I welcome it.

Fitness

The Lithuanians are here for us. Scientists from the Kaunas University of Technology have just published a paper on better exercises for lower back pain in our increasingly sedentary times, from a March 23, 2020 Kaunas University of Technology press release (also on EurekAlert) Note: There are a few minor grammatical issues,

With the significant part of the global population forced to work from home, the occurrence of lower back pain may increase. Lithuanian scientists have devised a spinal stabilisation exercise programme for managing lower back pain for people who perform a sedentary job. After testing the programme with 70 volunteers, the researchers have found that the exercises are not only efficient in diminishing the non-specific lower back pain, but their effect lasts 3 times longer than that of a usual muscle strengthening exercise programme.

According to the World Health Organisation, lower back pain is among the top 10 diseases and injuries that are decreasing the quality of life across the global population. It is estimated that non-specific low back pain is experienced by 60% to 70% of people in industrialised societies. Moreover, it is the leading cause of activity limitation and work absence throughout much of the world. For example, in the United Kingdom, low back pain causes more than 100 million workdays lost per year, in the United States – an estimated 149 million.

Chronic lower back pain, which starts from long-term irritation or nerve injury affects the emotions of the afflicted. Anxiety, bad mood and even depression, also the malfunctioning of the other bodily systems – nausea, tachycardia, elevated arterial blood pressure – are among the conditions, which may be caused by lower back pain.

During the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, with a significant part of the global population working from home and not always having a properly designed office space, the occurrence of lower back pain may increase.

“Lower back pain is reaching epidemic proportions. Although it is usually clear what is causing the pain and its chronic nature, people tend to ignore these circumstances and are not willing to change their lifestyle. Lower back pain usually comes away itself, however, the chances of the recurring pain are very high”, says Dr Irina Klizienė, a researcher at Kaunas University of Technology (KTU) Faculty of Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts.

Dr Klizienė, together with colleagues from KTU and from Lithuanian Sports University has designed a set of stabilisation exercises aimed at strengthening the muscles which support the spine at the lower back, i.e. lumbar area. The exercise programme is based on Pilates methodology.

According to Dr Klizienė, the stability of lumbar segments is an essential element of body biomechanics. Previous research evidence shows that in order to avoid the lower back pain it is crucial to strengthen the deep muscles, which are stabilising the lumbar area of the spine. One of these muscles is multifidus muscle.

“Human central nervous system is using several strategies, such as preparing for keeping the posture, preliminary adjustment to the posture, correcting the mistakes of the posture, which need to be rectified by specific stabilising exercises. Our aim was to design a set of exercises for this purpose”, explains Dr Klizienė.

The programme, designed by Dr Klizienė and her colleagues is comprised of static and dynamic exercises, which train the muscle strength and endurance. The static positions are to be held from 6 to 20 seconds; each exercise to be repeated 8 to 16 times.

Caption: The static positions are to be held from 6 to 20 seconds; each exercise to be repeated 8 to 16 times. Credit: KTU

The previous set is a little puzzling but perhaps you’ll find these ones below easier to follow,

Caption: The exercises are aimed at strengthening the muscles which support the spine at the lower back. Credit: KTU

I think more pictures of intervening moves would have been useful. Now. getting back to the press release,

In order to check the efficiency of the programme, 70 female volunteers were randomly enrolled either to the lumbar stabilisation exercise programme or to a usual muscle strengthening exercise programme. Both groups were exercising twice a week for 45 minutes for 20 weeks. During the experiment, ultrasound scanning of the muscles was carried out.

As soon as 4 weeks in lumbar stabilisation programme, it was observed that the cross-section area of the multifidus muscle of the subjects of the stabilisation group has increased; after completing the programme, this increase was statistically significant (p < 0,05). This change was not observed in the strengthening group.

Moreover, although both sets of exercises were efficient in eliminating lower back pain and strengthening the muscles of the lower back area, the effect of stabilisation exercises lasted 3 times longer – 12 weeks after the completion of the stabilisation programme against 4 weeks after the completion of the muscle strengthening programme.

“There are only a handful of studies, which have directly compared the efficiency of stabilisation exercises against other exercises in eliminating lower back pain”, says Dr Klizienė, “however, there are studies proving that after a year, lower back pain returned only to 30% of people who have completed a stabilisation exercise programme, and to 84% of people who haven’t taken these exercises. After three years these proportions are 35% and 75%.”

According to her, research shows that the spine stabilisation exercises are more efficient than medical intervention or usual physical activities in curing the lower back pain and avoiding the recurrence of the symptoms in the future.

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

Effect of different exercise programs on non-specific chronic low back pain and disability in people who perform sedentary work by Saule Sipavicienea, Irina Klizieneb. Clinical Biomechanics March 2020 Volume 73, Pages 17–27 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.clinbiomech.2019.12.028

This paper is behind a paywall.

ISEA (International Symposium on Electronic Arts) 2020: Why Sentience? rescheduled to October 2020 in Montréal, Québec

Mentioned here twice (in a November 29, 2019 posting about the call for proposals and in a March 4, 2020 posting about the preliminary programme), the 2020 International Symposium on Electronic Arts has been postponed, from a March 23, 2020 announcement received via email,

POSTPONEMENT NOTICE – ISEA2020
New Dates: October 13 to 18, 2020

Montreal, March 23, 2020 — With the COVID-19 pandemic, the world is facing an extraordinary situation. Following the measures announced by the Government of Quebec and the Government of Canada, in a concerted decision with its partners and collaborators, Montreal Digital Spring (Printemps numérique) has decided to postpone ISEA2020: WHY SENTIENCE? We are looking forward to seeing you in Montreal, October 13 to 18 2020!

Our priorities are public health and high-quality programming, and we will work hard during the spring and summer to ensure that the ISEA community enjoys a memorable symposium! We thank you for your understanding.

TICKETS

Any purchases already made will be automatically transferred to the new dates. The new deadline for Early Bird registration, for presenters to upload camera-ready papers and to fill in the Zone Festival form is May 1st, 2020 at 11:59 pm (GMT-5).

The answers to most of your questions can be found in the FAQ. If you have a specific question, contact us at the following emails: 

Regarding academic papers, panels, institutional presentations and artist talks, contact: isea.academic@printempsnumerique.ca

For artworks, contact: isea.artistic@printempsnumerique.ca

For workshops, contact: sylvaine@printempsnumerique.ca

For general public, contact: ISEA2020@printempsnumerique.ca

See you in Montreal in October!

There you have it.