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Smart contact lenses harvest energy from tears

After posting about a bioenergy harvesting battery for implants such as pacemakers and deep brain stimulators (see my May 17, 2024 posting), it seems like a good time to highlight another such device, in this case, contact lenses.

From an April 1, 2024 article by Julianne Pepitone for IEEE (Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers) Spectrum,

The potential use cases for smart contacts are compelling and varied. Pop a lens on your eye and monitor health metrics like glucose levels; receive targeted drug delivery for ocular diseases; experience augmented reality and read news updates with displays of information literally in your face.

But the eye is quite a challenge for electronics design: With one of the highest nerve densities of any human tissue, the cornea is 300 to 600 times as sensitive as our skin. Researchers have developed small, flexible chips, but power sources have proved more difficult, as big batteries and wires clearly won’t do here. Existing applications offer less-than-ideal solutions like overnight induction charging and other designs that rely on some type of external battery.

Now, a team from the University of Utah says they’ve developed a better solution: an all-in-one hybrid energy-generation unit specifically designed for eye-based tech.

In a paper published in the journal Small on 13 March [2024], the researchers describe how they built the device, combining a flexible silicon solar cell with a new device that converts tears to energy. The system can reliably supply enough electricity to operate smart contacts and other ocular devices.This is a major improvement over wireless power transfer from separate batteries, says Erfan Pourshaban, who worked on the system while a doctoral student at University of Utah.

Researchers tested a contact-lens power system on a fake eye. ERFAN POURSHABAN [downloaded from https://spectrum.ieee.org/power-smart-contact-lenses]

Here’s an excerpt from the explanation for how this system works, from the April 1, 2024 article,

To create the power pack, Pourshaban and his colleagues fabricated custom pieces. The first step was miniaturized, flexible silicon solar cells that can capture light from the sun as well as from artificial sources like lamps. The team connected eight tiny (1.5 by 1.5 by 0.1 millimeters) rigid crystalline cells and encapsulated them in a polymer to make a flexible photovoltaic system.

The second half is an eye-blinking-activated system that functions like a metal-air battery. The wearer’s natural tears—more specifically the electrolytes within them—serve as a biofuel to generate power.

The harvesting occurs literally in the blink of an eye: When the eye is completely open, the harvester is off. Then when the eye starts to blink, the tear electrolytes meet the magnesium anode, causing an oxidation reaction and the generation of electrons. …

Applications for the technology were also discussed, from the April 1, 2024 article,

“The reliable power output from this device can fuel a broad spectrum of applications, including wearable biosensors and electrically responsive drug-delivery systems, directly within the eye’s environment,” Gao adds.[Wei Gao, a biosensors expert and assistant professor of medical engineering at Caltech, who was not involved in the research.

Pourshaban agrees, adding that there are obvious consumer applications, such as lenses that display to a runner the heart rate, pace, and calorie burn during a workout. Retailers could glean valuable insights from tracking how a shopper scans shelves and selects items. [emphases mine] Commercialization potential is significant and varied, he says.

However, Pourshaban is perhaps most excited about potential applications in monitoring eye health, from prosaic conditions like presbyopia—age-related farsightedness, which can begin in the mid-40s—to more insidious diseases including glaucoma.

If you have the time, Pepitone’s April 1, 2024 article is an engaging and accessible read.

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

Power Scavenging Microsystem for Smart Contact Lenses by Erfan Pourshaban, Mohit U. Karkhanis, Adwait Deshpande, Aishwaryadev Banerjee, Md Rabiul Hasan, Amirali Nikeghbal, Chayanjit Ghosh, Hanseup Kim, Carlos H. Mastrangelo. Small DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/smll.202401068 First published: 13 March 2024

This paper is open access.

Innovative nanovector (nanogel) could pave way for new spinal cord injury treatments

Caption: Nanogel – Scheme of selective drug treatment in the central nervous system. Credit Politecnico di Milano – Istituto Mario Negri

A February 14, 2024 news item on Nanowerk provides some context for the image in the above, Note: A link has been removed,

In a study published in Advanced Materials (“Synergistic Pharmacological Therapy to Modulate Glial Cells in Spinal Cord Injury”), researchers Pietro Veglianese, Valeria Veneruso and Emilia Petillo from Istituto di Ricerche Farmacologiche Mario Negri IRCCS in collaboration with Filippo Rossi of the Politecnico di Milano have demonstrated that an innovative nanovector (nanogel), which they developed, is able to deliver anti-inflammatory drugs in a targeted manner into glial cells actively involved in the evolution of spinal cord injury, a condition that leads to paraplegia or quadriplegia [also known as tetraplegia].

A February 20, 2024 Politecnico di Milano press release (also on EurekAlert but published February 14, 2024) which originated the news item, provides a bit more information about the difficulties with current treatments and the advantages of the new approach,

Treatments currently available to modulate the inflammatory response mediated by the component that controls the brain’s internal environment after acute spinal cord injury showed limited efficacy. This is also due to the lack of a therapeutic approach that can selectively act on microglial and astrocytic cells.

The nanovectors developed by Politecnico di Milano, called nanogels, consist of polymers that can bind to specific target molecules. In this case, the nanogels were designed to bind to glial cells, which are crucial in the inflammatory response following acute spinal cord injury. The collaboration between Istituto di Ricerche Farmacologiche Mario Negri IRCCS and Politecnico di Milano showed that nanogels, loaded with a drug with anti-inflammatory action (rolipram), were able to convert glial cells from a damaging to a protective state, actively contributing to the recovery of injured tissue. Nanogels showed to have a selective effect on glial cells, releasing the drug in a targeted manner, maximising its effect and reducing possible side effects.

“The key to the research was understanding the functional groups that can selectively target nanogels within specific cell populations”, explains Filippo Rossi, professor at the Department of Chemistry, Materials and Chemical Engineering ‘Giulio Natta’ at Politecnico di Milano – This makes it possible to optimise drug treatments by reducing unwanted effects”.

“The results of the study”, continues Pietro Veglianese, Head of the Acute Spinal Trauma and Regeneration Unit, Department of Neuroscience at Istituto Mario Negri, “show that nanogels reduced inflammation and improved recovery capacity in animal models with spinal cord injury, partially restoring motor function. These results open the way to new therapeutic possibilities for myelolysis patients. Moreover, this approach may also be beneficial for treating neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, in which inflammation and glial cells play a significant role”.

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

Synergistic Pharmacological Therapy to Modulate Glial Cells in Spinal Cord Injury by Valeria Veneruso, Emilia Petillo, Fabio Pizzetti, Alessandro Orro, Davide Comolli, Massimiliano De Paola, Antonietta Verrillo, Arianna Baggiolini, Simona Votano, Franca Castiglione, Mattia Sponchioni, Gianluigi Forloni, Filippo Rossi, Pietro Veglianese. Advanced Materials Volume 36, Issue 3 January 18, 2024 2307747 DOOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/adma.202307747 First published: 22 November 2023

This paper is open access.

Simon Fraser University’s (SFU; Vancouver, Canada) Café Scientifique: last Spring 2024 event & Science Rendezvous on May 11, 2024

I have posted about this April 30, 2024 event on Zoom previously (see my January 16, 2024 post) so this constitutes a reminder. From an April 23, 2024 Simon Fraser University (SFU) Café Scientifique announcement (received via email),

SFU CAFÉ SCIENTIFIQUE: Overtraining and the Everyday Athlete

Tuesday, April 30 [2024], 5:00 – 6:30 pm over Zoom

What happens when we train too hard, don’t take enough time to recover, or underfuel while exercising? Join SFU Biomedical Physiology and Kinesiology professor Alexandra Coates for a discussion about overtraining and and how it affects both elite and “everyday athletes.”

Register here: https://www.eventbrite.ca/e/763521010897 to receive the Zoom invite

Joint SFU and Science Rendezvous May 11, 2024 events

From an April 23, 2024 Simon Fraser University (SFU) Café Scientifique announcement (received via email),

Science Rendezvous and International Astronomy Day returns IN-PERSON on Saturday, May 11 [2024], at SFU Burnaby with fun for the entire family. Peep through our telescope at the Trottier Observatory, dissect a digital cadaver, have fun with our Superconducting train, learn more about forensic science, create your own LED card and so much more!

Check out event details and register for the Magic Chemistry show! https://www.sfu.ca/science/community/science-rendezvous-2024.html 

This event is hosted with our friends from the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Vancouver in celebration of International Astronomy Day.

Science Rendezvous is now the largest science festival in Canada. (The Canadian government has funded national science events off and on with the Science Odyssey being the most recent iteration. As happens from time to time, whichever agency is organizing the government’s national event either loses funding or can’t commit resources to the event. The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada [NSERC] announced its withdrawal as the organizing agency with the 2023 iteration of the event.)

You can find more events more May 11, 2024 Science Rendezvous events across Canada here. So far this year, they have events in Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, Newfoundland & Labrador, Northwest Territories, Ontario, and Québec.

Excellent electrochromic smart window performance with yolk-shell NiO (nitrogen oxide) nanospheres

Electrochromic windows hold great promise where energy savings are concerned. So far, it’s still just a promise but perhaps the research in this April 17, 2023 news item on phys.org will help realize it, Note: Links have been removed,

Researchers from Tsinghua University synthesized porous yolk-shell NiO nanospheres (PYS-NiO NSs) via a solvothermal and subsequent calcination process of Ni-MOF. As the large specific surface areas and hollow porous nanostructures were conducive to ionic transport, PYS-NiO NSs exhibited a fast coloring/bleaching speed (3.6/3.9 s per one coloring/bleaching cycle) and excellent cycling stability (82% of capacity retention after 3000 cycles). These superior electrochromic (EC) properties indicated that the PYS-NiO NSs was a promising candidate for high performance EC devices.

Electrochromic (EC) materials (ECMs) are defined as the materials which have reversible changes in their colors and optical properties (transmittance, reflectance, and absorption) under different external voltages. Over the past decades, ECMs show promising advantages and application prospects in many fields such as smart windows, adaptive camouflage, electronic displays, and energy storage, etc., because of their excellent optical modulation abilities.

This image doesn’t seem all that helpful (to me) in understanding the research,

Caption: Porous yolk-shell nanospheres exhibit a fast coloring/bleaching speed. Credit: Baoshun Wang, Tsinghua University

An April 17, 2023 Particuology (journal) news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, does provide more detail, Note: Links have been removed,

Transition metal oxides (TMOs) are one of the most important ECMs which have been widely studied. They have many advantages such as rich nanostructure design, simple synthesis process, high security, etc. Among them, nickel oxide (NiO) is an attractive anode ECM and has attracted extensive research interest due to its high optical contrast, high coloring efficiency, low cost, etc. However, NiO-based ECMs still face the challenges of long EC switching times and poor cycling life which are caused by their poor ionic/electronic diffusion kinetics and low electrical conductivity.

Metal-organic frameworks (MOFs) have attracted enormous attention, because of their high porosity and large surface areas, and could be adjusted to achieve different properties by selecting different metal ions and organic bridging ligands. Due to the porosity and long-range orderliness, MOFs can provide fast and convenient channels for small molecules and ions to insert and extract during the transformation process. Therefore, MOFs can be used as effective templates for the preparation of hollow and porous TMOs with high ion transport efficiency, excellent specific capacitance, and electrochemical activities.

So the authors proposed a new strategy to design a kind of NiO with hollow and porous structure to obtain excellent EC performance and cyclic stability. As a proof-of-concept demonstration, the authors successfully synthesized MOFs-derived porous yolk-shell NiO nanospheres (PYS-NiO NSs) which exhibited excellent EC performance. Ni-organic framework spheres were prepared by a simple solvothermal method and then converted to PYS-NiO NSs by thermal decomposition. The PYS-NiO NSs exhibited relatively high specific surface areas and stable hollow nanostructures, which not only provided a large contact area between active sites and electrolyte ions in the EC process but also helped the NiO to accommodate large volume changes without breaking. Besides, the PYS-NiO NSs also shortened the ionic diffusion length and provided efficient channels for transferring electronics and ions. In addition, the coupling with carbon also rendered the PYS-NiO NSs with improved electronic conductivity and obtained better EC performance. The PYS-NiO NSs exhibited a fast coloring/bleaching speed (3.6/3.9 s). Besides, PYS-NiO NSs also exhibited excellent cycling stability (82% of capacity retention after 3000 cycles). These superior EC properties indicate that the PYS-NiO NSs is a promising candidate for high-performance EC devices. The as-prepared PYS-NiO NSs are believed to be a promising candidate for smart windows, displays, antiglare rearview mirrors, etc. More importantly, this work provides a new and feasible strategy for the efficient preparation of ECMs with fast response speed and high cyclic stability.

Particuology (IF=3.251) is an interdisciplinary journal that publishes frontier research articles and critical reviews on the discovery, formulation and engineering of particulate materials, processes and systems. Topics are broadly relevant to the production of materials, pharmaceuticals and food, the conversion of energy resources, and protection of the environment. For more information, please visit: https://www.journals.elsevier.com/particuology.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper, Note: There is an unusually long lead time between online access and print access,

Novel self-assembled porous yolk-shell NiO nanospheres with excellent electrochromic performance for smart windows by Baoshun Wang, Ya Huang, Siming Zhao, Run Li, Di Gao, Hairong Jiang, Rufan Zhang. Particuology Volume 84, January 2024, Pages 72-80 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.partic.2023.03.007 Available online: April 17, 2023

This paper is open access.

Plastic waste as a valuable soil additive

There’s some mildly encouraging news about a way to get rid of plastic waste,

Caption: Plastic waste in a creek bed at Fairmount Park in Riverside, Calif. David Danelski/UCR. Credit: Photo by David Danelski/UCR

This January 9, 2023 news item on ScienceDaily describes research into turning plastic waste into useful products,

University of California, Riverside, scientists have moved a step closer to finding a use for the hundreds of millions of tons of plastic waste produced every year that often winds up clogging streams and rivers and polluting our oceans.

In a recent study, Kandis Leslie Abdul-Aziz, a UCR assistant professor of chemical and environmental engineering, and her colleagues detailed a method to convert plastic waste into a highly porous form of charcoal or char that has a whopping surface area of about 400 square meters per gram of mass.

Such charcoal captures carbon and could potentially be added to soil to improve soil water retention and aeration of farmlands. It could also fertilize the soil as it naturally breaks down. Abdul-Aziz, however, cautioned that more work needs to be done to substantiate the utility of such char in agriculture.

A January 6, 2023 University of California at Riverside (UC Riverside or UCR) news release (also on EurekAlert) by David Danelski, which originated the news item, provides more detail about the work

The plastic-to-char process was developed at UC Riverside’s Marlan and Rosemary Bourns College of Engineering. It involved mixing one of two common types of plastic with corn waste — the leftover stalks, leaves, husks, and cobs — collectively known as corn stover. The mix was then cooked with highly compressed hot water, a process known as hydrothermal carbonization.

The highly porous char was produced using polystyrene, the plastic used for Styrofoam packaging, and polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, the material commonly used to make water and soda bottles, among many other products.

The study followed an earlier successful effort to use corn stover alone to make activated charcoal used to filter pollutants from drinking water. In the earlier study, charcoal made from corn stover alone activated with potassium hydroxide was able to absorb 98% of the pollutant vanillin from test water samples. 

In the follow-up study, Abdul-Aziz and her colleagues wanted to know if activated charcoal made from a combination of corn stover and plastic also could be an effective water treatment medium. If so, plastic waste could be repurposed to clean up water pollution. But the activated charcoal made from the mix absorbed only about 45% of vanillin in test water samples – making it ineffective for water cleanups, she said.  

“We theorize that there could be still some residual plastic on the surface of the materials, which is preventing the absorption of some of these (vanillin) molecules on the surface,” she said.

Still, the ability to make highly porous charcoal by combining plastic and plant biomass waste is an important discovery, as detailed in the paper, “Synergistic and Antagonistic Effects of the Co-Pyrolysis of Plastics and Corn Stover to Produce Char and Activated Carbon,” published in the journal ACS Omega. The lead author is Mark Gale, a former UCR doctoral student who is now a lecturer at Harvey Mudd College. UCR undergraduate student Peter Nguyen is a co-author and Abdul-Aziz is the corresponding author.  

“It could be a very useful biochar because it is a very high surface area material,” Abdul-Aziz said. “So, if we just stop at the char and not make it in that turn into activated carbon, I think there are a lot of useful ways that we can utilize it.” 

Plastic is essentially a solid form of petroleum that accumulates in the environment, where it pollutes, entangles, and chokes and kills fish, birds, and other animals that inadvertently ingest it. Plastics also break down into micro particles that can get into our bodies and damage cells or induce inflammatory and immune reactions.

Unfortunately, it costs more to recycle used plastic than it costs to make new plastic from petroleum. 

Abdul-Aziz’s laboratory takes a different approach to recycling. It is devoted to putting pernicious waste products such as plastic and plant biomass waste back into the economy by upcycling them into valuable commodities.

“I feel like we have more of an agnostic approach to plastic recycling when you can throw it in (with biomass) and use the char to better the soil,” she said.  “That’s what we’re thinking.”

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

Synergistic and Antagonistic Effects of the Co-Pyrolysis of Plastics and Corn Stover to Produce Char and Activated Carbon by Mark Gale, Peter M. Nguyen, and Kandis Leslie Gilliard-AbdulAziz. ACS Omega 2023, 8, 1, 380–390 Publication Date:December 21, 2022 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1021/acsomega.2c04815 Copyright © 2022 The Authors. Published by American Chemical Society

This paper appears to be open access.

Happy (belated) US National Nanotechnology Day (October 9, 2022)

H/t to Lynn L. Bergeson’s and Carla N. Hutton’s October 8, 2022 posting on The National Law Review website for the news about the US National Nanotechnology Day on October 9, 2022.

Here’s more from the US National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) October 6, 2022 posting by Adrienne Eastlake, Gary Roth, and Nicole Neu-Baker on the NIOSH Science blog (Note: Links and footnotes have been removed),

Every year on October 9th we celebrate National Nanotechnology Day. The date 10-9 pays homage to the nanometer scale: 10–9 (one billionth of a meter). Anything that can be measured in nanometers is extremely small! For instance, the width of a strand of human hair is about 90,000 nanometers, bacteria are between 300–5,000 nanometers, viruses are 5–300 nanometers, the diameter of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) is 2.5 nanometers, and a single atom is 0.1–0.5 nanometers. A healthy young adult’s fingernail grows an average of just over 1 nanometer per second (3.47 millimeters per month on average)!1 National Nanotechnology Day was created to help raise awareness of nanotechnology, to show how it is currently used in products that enrich our daily lives and to consider future challenges and opportunities.

Engineered nanomaterials (ENMs) are materials intentionally produced to have particle sizes between 1 and 100 nanometers in at least one dimension. These materials can be nanoparticles, nanotubes, or nanoplates, depending on their shape. ENMs typically have new or unique properties different from those of larger forms of the same material, making them desirable for specific product applications. These properties can contribute to increased elasticity, tensile strength, electrical conduction, and reactivity. Increasingly, they are added into existing materials to give these properties to bulk materials (such as plastics or metals). Consumer products using ENMs include cosmetics, sunscreen, food storage products, appliances, clothing, electronics, computers, sporting goods, and coatings. ENMs are also used in state-of-the-art sensors and biomedical technologies. COVID-19 research and the development of vaccines depend heavily on nanotechnology, and many vaccines use nanotechnology to improve their effectiveness. You probably are interacting with nanotechnology-enabled products every day!

Since the early 2000s, NIOSH has been at the forefront of efforts to characterize potential workplace hazards for those working with ENMs and to ensure safe and healthy workplaces, including the creation of the NIOSH Nanotechnology Research Center in 2004. Since then, NIOSH has published a quantitative risk assessment and an elemental mass-based recommended exposure limit (REL) for each of the following: carbon nanotubes/nanofibers,4 nanoscale titanium dioxide, 5 and silver nanomaterials.6 In addition, the poster Controlling Health Hazards When Working With Nanomaterials: Questions to Ask Before You Start is a helpful and easy-to-use visual resource for the workplace.

In collaboration with RTI International, NIOSH administered a survey developed by the RAND Corporation to North American companies working with nanomaterials to assess health and safety practices and the impact of efforts made by NIOSH to protect worker health and safety.9 Forty-five companies in the United States and Canada that fabricate, manufacture, handle, dispose, or otherwise use nanomaterials completed the online survey in 2019. The survey included research questions about nanomaterials in use and the overall occupational health and safety culture at the companies. Additionally, other questions asked about whether the companies interacted with NIOSH or used NIOSH resources to inform their health and safety practices and policies. More than a third (37.8%) of the 45 respondents reported using at least one NIOSH resource for information about safe handling of nanomaterials. Larger companies were more likely to report using NIOSH resources than companies employing fewer than 50 employees. While the survey was limited by the small sample size, it provided valuable insight, including that future NIOSH outreach should specifically target small businesses that use or handle nanomaterials.

We hope you find a way to celebrate National Nanotechnology Day! The National Nanotechnology Initiative (nano.gov) suggests running a 100 Billion Nanometer Dash. Sounds like quite a distance, but it is just 100 meters (328 feet) or 6.2% of a mile. As we continue to provide guidance and recommendations to keep workers safe when working with ENMs, we will be right there with you until you cross the finish line… one nanometer at a time. Good luck!

You can find other activities to celebrate the day (even belatedly) at nano.gov here on their National Nanotechnology Day webpage.

Leiden, European City of Science 2022, hosts EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF) 2022

The 2022 EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF) runs from July 13 – 16, 2022 but the 2022 European City of Science programme runs for the entire year and a July 15, 2022 University of Leiden press release (received via email) announces a special anniversary date being celebrated by Europe’s current City of Science [Leiden, Netherlands]*,

The smallest statue in the world: Leiden physicists and sculptor build a
nano-Rembrandt

Researchers from Leiden University together with sculptor Jeroen Spijker
created a 3D-printed statue of Rembrandt van Rijn of 28 micrometers tall
– that’s a third of the thickness of a hair. The sculpture, that
isn’t visible to the naked eye, is on display at Museum De Lakenhal in
Leiden. Leiden is the birth town of the famous painter, and on his
birthday today, everyone can come and ‘see’ the statue for free.

To celebrate Leiden European City of Science 2022, Jeroen Spijker worked
with physicists Daniela Kraft and Rachel Doherty from Leiden University
on a micro-statue of Rembrandt made from polymer with a layer of
platinum. At just 28 micrometres tall, the statue, which was made with a
3D printer, is around a third of the thickness of a human hair. This
makes it the smallest work of art in the world, says Jeroen Spijker.

3D printed as small as possible
The work is based on a bronze sculpture of Rembrandt that Spijker had
previously made. This was scanned and printed as small as possible with
a 3D printer. This isn’t Leiden University’s first miniature work.

In 2020 Kraft and Doherty’s research group used the same 3D printer to
make the smallest boat in the world, which could even sail. At 30
micrometres, this was slightly larger than Rembrandt.

Discover the limits of scientific devices
Not only are such tiny creations fun challenges but they also help
scientific research. Kraft and Doherty are studying microswimmers:
microscopic particles that can move in a fluid environment. They print
these microswimmers themselves with a very accurate 3D printer. ‘The
Rembrandt project is helping us discover the limits of our devices,’
says Doherty. ‘How small can we print something?’

On display next to Rembrandt’s paintings
Visitors will see for themselves how this is invisible to the naked eye.
The statue will be in the same room as paintings by Rembrandt. There is
also a short film about the process. Jeroen Spijker: ‘I wanted to
create a statue that I could still accept as a work of art with my own
signature. Any smaller and there would have been too many
distortions.’

About Leiden2022 European City of Science
The nano-statue of Rembrandt was created as a project where art meets
science, one aspect of Leiden2022 European City of Science. The statue
will be on display at Museum De Lakenhal until 31 July.

Leiden is European City of Science in 2022: for a year Leiden is the
capital of European science. Leiden University is a proud partner of
Leiden2022. For an entire year Leiden2022 will be offering a programme
for anyone with an open and curious mind, a programme packed with
science, knowledge, art and expertise.

Here’s the statue,

A special photo of the Rembrandt, which cannot be seen with the naked eye. Courtesy: University of Leident

You can find more about Leiden 2022 European City of Science here. While it’s late for the 2022 EuroScience Open Forum, there’s a preview of the upcoming 2024 European City of Science to be held in Katowice, Poland, which will likely be the site of the 2024 EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF) as well.

*[Leiden, Netherlands] added July 15, 2022 at 1325 hours PT.

Lightweight nanomaterial for firefighters’ safety suits

This piece of research on firefighters’ safety suits comes from Australia’s Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO). A February 3, 2022 article by Judy Skatssoon for governmentnews.com.au describes the work, (Note: Despite the date of the article, the research is from 2021)

Researchers at ANSTO are developing a new highly protective nano-material they believe will produce light-weight safety suits that are perfect for Australian firefighters.

The technology involves the use of super-thin nanosheets made from a new fire and heat-resistant non-organic compound, thermo-hydraulics specialist Professor Guan Heng Yeoh says.

The compound is created from titanium carbide and produces a lightweight coating which can be used in place of traditional fire protection measures. 

A compound extracted from prawn shells, chitosan, is used to bind the nanomaterial together.

I found more details about the work in a January 25, 2022 ANSTO press release, Note: Links have been removed,

Scientists from UNSW [University of New South Wales] and ANSTO have characterised the structure of advanced materials, that could be used as a lightweight fire-retardant filler.

Fire retardant materials can self-extinguish if they ignite. 

A team under Professor Guan Heng Yeoh, Director of the ARC Training Centre for Fire Retardant Materials and Safety Technologies at UNSW and Thermal-Hydraulic Specialist at ANSTO, are working to commercialise advanced products for bushfire fighting, building protection and other applications.    

They investigated a family of two-dimensional transition metal carbides, carbonites and nitrides, known as MXenes.

In research published in Composites Part C, they reported the molecular structure of MXene, using neutron scattering and other advanced techniques.

Because the stability, properties, and various applications of MXene rely heavily on its atomic and molecular structure,  Prof Yeoh and associates conducted a detailed structural and surface characterisation of MXene.

Knowledge from this research provided good insight on how structure affects electrical, thermoelectric, magnetic and other properties of Mxene.

Experiments at ANSTO’s Australian Centre for Neutron Scattering on the Bilby small-angle neutron scattering (SANS) instrument were undertaken to characterise the two-dimensional structure of nanosheets—revealing the thickness of the material and the gaps between layers.

Theoretical modelling was used to extrapolate key information from the SANS data regarding the structural architecture of the titanium carbide nanosheets and investigate the influence of temperature on the structure.

Measurements revealed that MXene that is suspended in a colloidal solution consists of nanosheets of ultrathin multilayers with clear sharp edges.

The material comprises nanolayers, which overlap each other and form clusters of micro-sized units that endow a level of protection.

The nanolayers can be added on top of organic fire-retardant polymers. The total thickness of MXene was found to be 3 nm.

The information was in alignment with observations made using scanning electron microscopy and transmission electron microscopy.

Senior Instrument scientist Dr Jitendra Mata said, “Using SANS is like looking through a keyhole, the keyhole gives you a size indication from 1 nanometre to 500nm.  It may feel like a small size, but it’s actually not – many physical phenomena and the chemical structure occur within that size range.

“There are not many techniques in the world that gives you information about the structure and surface that accurately in a suspension and in films. Also, neutrons are ideal for many in-situ studies.”

Protective suits made with traditional retardant use as much as 30 to 40 per cent carbon compounds to achieve fire-retardant properties, which makes them heavy.

“Because we can use very low concentrations of the two-dimensional material, it comprises only about 1- 5 per cent of the total weight of the final material,” explained Prof Yeoh.

“And because it can be applied as a post-treatment, it doesn’t complicate the manufacturing process.”

When heat comes from above the surface of the material, it is conducted and moved along the nanosheets dispersing it. The nanosheets also act as a heat shield.

“At this point, it takes a lot of time to etch out the aluminium, but there are groups working on upscaling the MXene production process,” said Prof Yeoh.

“We also need to look at the performance and characteristics of the material at higher temperatures up to 800°C,” he added.

At the macro level, early tests have found the material to be an effective fire retardant.

A large team of researchers from the UNSW and ANSTO contributed to the research including first authors, Anthony Chun Yin Yuen and Timothy Bo Yuan Chen and ANSTO instrument scientist, Dr Andrew Whitten.

The versatile material could also potentially be used in energy storage devices.

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

Study of structure morphology and layer thickness of Ti3C2 MXene with Small-Angle Neutron Scattering (SANS) by Anthony Chun Yin Yuen, Timothy Bo Yuan Chen, Bo Lin, Wei Yang, Imrana I.Kabir, Ivan Miguel De Cachinho Cordeiro, Andrew E.Whitten, Jitendra Mata, Bin Yu, Hong-Dian Lu. Guan Heng Yeoh. Composites Part C: Open Access Volume 5, July 2021, 100155 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jcomc.2021.100155

This paper is open access.

UNESCO’s first global recommendations on the ethics of artificial intelligence (AI) announced

This makes a nice accompaniment to my commentary (December 3, 2021 posting) on the Nature of Things programme (telecast by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation), The Machine That Feels.

Here’s UNESCO’s (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) November 25, 2021 press release making the announcement (also received via email),

UNESCO member states adopt the first ever global agreement [recommendation] on the Ethics of Artificial Intelligence

Paris, 25 Nov [2021] – Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO presented
Thursday the first ever global standard on the ethics of artificial
intelligence adopted by the member states of UNESCO at the General
Conference.

This historical text defines the common values and principles which will
guide the construction of the necessary legal infrastructure to ensure
the healthy development of AI.

AI is pervasive, and enables many of our daily routines – booking
flights, steering driverless cars, and personalising our morning news
feeds. AI also supports the decision-making of governments and the
private sector.

AI technologies are delivering remarkable results in highly specialized
fields such as cancer screening and building inclusive environments for
people with disabilities. They also help combat global problems like
climate change and world hunger, and help reduce poverty by optimizing
economic aid.

But the technology is also bringing new unprecedented challenges. We see
increased gender and ethnic bias, significant threats to privacy,
dignity and agency, dangers of mass surveillance, and increased use of
unreliable AI technologies in law enforcement, to name a few. Until now,
there were no universal standards to provide an answer to these issues.

In 2018, Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO, launched an
ambitious project: to give the world an ethical framework for the use of
artificial intelligence. Three years later, thanks to the mobilization
of hundreds of experts from around the world and intense international
negotiations, the 193 UNESCO’s member states have just officially
adopted this ethical framework.

“The world needs rules for artificial intelligence to benefit
humanity. The Recommendation on the ethics of AI is a major answer. It
sets the first global normative framework while giving States the
responsibility to apply it at their level. UNESCO will support its 193
Member States in its implementation and ask them to report regularly on
their progress and practices”, said Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO Director-General.

The content of the recommendation

The Recommendation [emphasis mine] aims to realize the advantages AI brings to society and reduce the risks it entails. It ensures that digital transformations
promote human rights and contribute to the achievement of the
Sustainable Development Goals, addressing issues around transparency,
accountability and privacy, with action-oriented policy chapters on data
governance, education, culture, labour, healthcare and the economy.

*Protecting data

The Recommendation calls for action beyond what tech firms and
governments are doing to guarantee individuals more protection by
ensuring transparency, agency and control over their personal data. It
states that individuals should all be able to access or even erase
records of their personal data. It also includes actions to improve data
protection and an individual’s knowledge of, and right to control,
their own data. It also increases the ability of regulatory bodies
around the world to enforce this.

*Banning social scoring and mass surveillance

The Recommendation explicitly bans the use of AI systems for social
scoring and mass surveillance. These types of technologies are very
invasive, they infringe on human rights and fundamental freedoms, and
they are used in a broad way. The Recommendation stresses that when
developing regulatory frameworks, Member States should consider that
ultimate responsibility and accountability must always lie with humans
and that AI technologies should not be given legal personality
themselves.

*Helping to monitor and evalute

The Recommendation also sets the ground for tools that will assist in
its implementation. Ethical Impact Assessment is intended to help
countries and companies developing and deploying AI systems to assess
the impact of those systems on individuals, on society and on the
environment. Readiness Assessment Methodology helps Member States to
assess how ready they are in terms of legal and technical
infrastructure. This tool will assist in enhancing the institutional
capacity of countries and recommend appropriate measures to be taken in
order to ensure that ethics are implemented in practice. In addition,
the Recommendation encourages Member States to consider adding the role
of an independent AI Ethics Officer or some other mechanism to oversee
auditing and continuous monitoring efforts.

*Protecting the environment

The Recommendation emphasises that AI actors should favour data, energy
and resource-efficient AI methods that will help ensure that AI becomes
a more prominent tool in the fight against climate change and on
tackling environmental issues. The Recommendation asks governments to
assess the direct and indirect environmental impact throughout the AI
system life cycle. This includes its carbon footprint, energy
consumption and the environmental impact of raw material extraction for
supporting the manufacturing of AI technologies. It also aims at
reducing the environmental impact of AI systems and data
infrastructures. It incentivizes governments to invest in green tech,
and if there are disproportionate negative impact of AI systems on the
environment, the Recommendation instruct that they should not be used.

Decisions impacting millions of people should be fair, transparent and contestable. These new technologies must help us address the major challenges in our world today, such as increased inequalities and the environmental crisis, and not deepening them.” said Gabriela Ramos, UNESCO’s Assistant Director General for Social and Human Sciences.

Emerging technologies such as AI have proven their immense capacity to
deliver for good. However, its negative impacts that are exacerbating an
already divided and unequal world, should be controlled. AI developments
should abide by the rule of law, avoiding harm, and ensuring that when
harm happens, accountability and redressal mechanisms are at hand for
those affected.

If I read this properly (and it took me a little while), this is an agreement on the nature of the recommendations themselves and not an agreement to uphold them.

You can find more background information about the process for developing the framework outlined in the press release on the Recommendation on the ethics of artificial intelligence webpage. I was curious as to the composition of the Adhoc Expert Group (AHEG) for the Recommendation; they had varied representation from every continent. (FYI, The US and Mexico represented North America.)